Sorting the Beef from the Bull, Nicola Temple & Richard Evershed
This book is about the science of food fraud — the way food fraud is committed, hidden, and detected. It has chapters on various staple foodstuffs, from meat (Horsegate, of course, but also other meat-related frauds like the injection of extra water into meat so that the consumer pays for water in the alleged weight), spices (you don’t want to know what happens with many ground spices), wine (mostly affecting rich people, but also some of the lowest end stuff), oil (olive oil is a big target), milk… Apparently it’s endemic in the UK, at least in Lancashire, that pizza takeaways almost universally do not use mozzarella — it’s not even cheese at all, with actual cheese only being added as a flavouring. And if you’re in the US, I have bad news about the likelihood that any red snapper is actually red snapper. 80% odds say it isn’t.
Most boggling to me, the idea that you can make a synthetic egg that fools people to the extent that they’ll crack the eggs, fry them up and consume them. (You can tell they aren’t real eggs because they lack a membrane inside the eggshell. That’s about it, to hear these authors tell it.)
It’s not just horror stories, of course: the authors also discuss the science at work in detecting these frauds, and the best ways for a consumer to avoid them. Mostly, it comes down to awareness, buying things whole (fish with the heads on; whole spices; recognisable cuts of meat, etc) buying seasonally, and buying locally from sources you can trust.
It’s all a bit horrifying, but fascinating as well. Definitely worth a read.
Return of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer,Susan Scott, Christopher J. Duncan
Full disclosure: I was sceptical before I even picked this up from the sensational title. You’ve got to go a seriously long way to convince me that the Plague is the “world’s greatest serial killer”, even if we accept that a disease should be considered in such an anthropomorphic light. Let me introduce you to your friendly neighbourhood Influenzavirus A, my #1 vote for “disease most likely to have the means to suddenly eradicate humanity”.
I picked it up because an author tweeted a thread of things she would never let anyone change her mind about, and one of the items was that she doesn’t believe the Black Death was caused by Yersinia pestis. Now, infectious disease is one of my special interests, and I already happened to know that Yersinia pestis has, for example, been isolated from plague pits. So I asked her for evidence of the claim, and she pointed me to this book.
From the start, it was not very rigorous or scientifically accurate? They’ve claimed that HIV is completely understood and under control and causes no panic, for one thing. (I wrote my dissertation on tuberculosis, so I can guarantee you that no HIV isn’t fully understood, because if we could, for example, understand how it and tuberculosis enable each other, that would be really helpful. We have theories, but as of a year ago, we don’t really know for sure.)
And then they make absurd statements like this: “…by all the rules of infectious diseases, when the Black Death was finished it should have disappeared.”
What?! Have they never heard of animal reservoirs? Re-introduction from the original sources? Endemic diseases? Fast-adapting diseases like influenza that change their surface proteins and thus evade immunity? Infectious diseases almost never just “disappear”, though there may be an outbreak in a new species due to chance contact that doesn’t reoccur that might look like disappearance.
What rules of infectious diseases can they possibly be referring to?
I mean, how many diseases do you even know of that have been driven extinct after much effort by humans doing so deliberately? That’ll be two: smallpox and rinderpest. (Smallpox is the only human disease to be eradicated, and with the aid of a highly effective vaccine and extremely persistent vaccination campaigns, it took 11 years of intense campaigning. We have so far been unable to repeat the effect on other target pathogens.)
And there’s this one: “[Measles] is not a danger to well-nourished children in the developed world.” Measles, which can kill (yes, even in the developed world), and furthermore wipes out your immune memoryas well as depressing your innate immune system. And they think that Ebola literally liquefies your internal organs.
And then, you know, I read the immortal words stating that “it came as a great surprise to learn” that Iceland had effective contact with the rest of Europe in the 15th century, and also suffered two major outbreaks of the Black Death. Do they just… know nothing of history? At all? Clearly not: they also referred to a manuscript from 1404 as “ancient”…
I had more quibbles. Honestly, I was made out of quibbles about this book. I do have some lingering questions from good points they raised about the vectors, since they claim that rats/fleas of the type that could transmit bubonic plague were not present in Britain and certainly not in Iceland. It’s clear that their claim it was simply too cold in Britain for bubonic plague to survive is untrue, since studies since the publication of this book with reliable controls have found Yersinia pestis in plague pit remains in Britain, but that still makes me wonder about the vectors.
I’d also like to see independent verification of their work on the incubation period of the Plague, which according to their calculations aren’t at all like the modern Yersinia pestis (which is not genetically that different from the medieval version). However, the shakiness of their grasp on facts elsewhere leads me to doubt just about everything they say.
The title of the book gives it away: this is a series of case studies, essentially, covering cases of psychosomatic disease. In it, as in O’Sullivan’s other book, she discusses the cases of various past patients and how she concluded their symptoms were not neurological disorders, but instead signs of a conversion disorder. I think the title is a bit of a disservice, because O’Sullivan is strongly against the kind of dismissal the phrase implies. She believes that (most of) her patients with this issue are truly distressed, truly experiencing pain and disability, and truly require medical help. Though it’s not a physical disorder of the nerves, it is something that should and must be treated in order to allow people to resume normal lives.
Understanding of psychosomatic illness and health anxiety is lacking in many doctors. Part of it is overwork: crowded clinics do not appreciate the sight of someone hoving into view with yet another anxiety-related illness of nebulous symptoms and solely psychological origin. But people like that, all the way along the scale from the lumps and bumps that trouble me to those whose brains paralyse themselves, all deserve compassion and treatment, and O’Sullivan’s book strongly advocates for that. She is firmly against the impulse to second guess a patient and assume they are faking.
That said, of course she makes herself come across as preternaturally patient with this kind of thing, and very sure about her diagnoses. She does discuss uncertainties now and then, but for the most part she is very certain of herself. Most of the cases she mentions are very clear-cut, and it makes it all seem very easy. In reality, things are muddier.
The chapter on ME/CFS has many detractors and as many people who shout that it is pure truth. Lacking the professional background or the academic reading on the topic, I can only say that I was under the impression that the graded exercise she recommends was in fact proven to be unhelpful, and that both sides in ME/CFS discussions can get very fraught and very disinclined to admit the truth of anything the other says. At the very least, O’Sullivan’s sympathy feels real, and she does intend to diminish the suffering of people with ME or CFS; she merely questions its source, and does not believe that a psychological source of issues means weakness or that you can just snap out of it.
It’s not deeply profound if you’re looking for the science of all this, though she does discuss what is known and the history of psychosomatic illnesses. It’s mostly of interest for really understanding the bananas things our brains can do to us. An enjoyable read, but not for me a groundbreaking one.
Gina Rippon and other writers like Cordelia Fine between them attempt to totally rip to shreds the idea that there are such things as “male brains” and “female brains”, writing convincing critiques of studies which are then just as convincingly critiqued in their turn. It’s difficult for someone outside the field (even someone with a biology degree that included modules on human biology and on “the science of the mind”) to know how to pick this apart, and I worry that a lot of the time we go looking for someone who supports our view, and then believe them because they sound most convincing. (And of course they do! It’s easy to convince someone of something they already believe.)
In terms of the book itself, Rippon’s not as engaging as Cordelia Fine; I actually got a little bored and bogged down at some points. It definitely wouldn’t be my first choice as a primer for a pop-sci book that’s sceptical of the pink-brain-blue-brain debate. There are some interesting sections: the discussion of attitudes toward menstruation is particularly interesting, as it suggests many of our negative ideas about menstruation (including PMS) are culturally received. (Then again, Rippon doesn’t engage with the genuine issues of people with conditions like PCOS or endometriosis, which very clearly make periods exactly the misery people fear.)
In terms of the evidence presented, I think some of the debunking is useful for sure, and the reminders that some of these differences are actually vanishingly small. However, Rippon uses examples of women with high testosterone, and possibly other intersex characteristics as well, without bothering to think about whether it’s the binary that’s serving us poorly. We know that biologically, sex is a spectrum with groupings around two points, not two separate and wholly discrete categories. I’d love to see more work dealing with that and what that might mean; this book ain’t it, because it tacitly accepts from the start that there are men and women, and that everyone can be sorted into one of those two boxes.
Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet, David Beerling
I picked this up on the strength of The Green Planet: in that book, Beerling’s fascination with and passion for everything to do with plants was palpable. It was a really good book, and he wrote clearly for any audience. Making Eden is perhaps a little more technical, or just a little less polished: I honestly found it a little dry, overall, and I can’t say I loved it nearly as much. Obviously I’m a bad judge of what works for people without a scientific background, but once or twice I found myself getting lost, so my feeling is that it probably misses the target a bit.
It is fascinating to think about how plants made that step from the oceans to the land, though, and it was a worthwhile read to understand a bit more about that. The importance of fungi doesn’t surprise me, though I was pleased to get a chance to read a bit about the experiments that more or less proved it. That leads neatly into Beerling’s final chapter, which… discusses the impact of humanity on plant diversity.
I get it, it’s an important subject, but at this point with me you’re not just preaching to the choir, you’re trying to teach them a song they already know — and it’s not even a more specialist look than perhaps I might read elsewhere, because it’s just 20 pages at the end of a book on its own topic. It’s boring. I know why it’s there; perhaps it’s even irresponsible not to put it in there somehow. But… none of it is new to me, and this book didn’t excite me enough in general to really get over that.
So, overall a bit disappointing. It’s still readable, but I didn’t find it compulsive reading like The Emerald Planet, and it didn’t get me excited.
The History of Life in 100 Fossils, Paul D. Taylor, Aaron O’Dea
This isn’t entirely a coffee table book, but it is a little sparing on details — sometimes I really wanted to know how a certain fossil was formed, and they don’t mention it, or their related text is barely related to the actual fossil they’re presenting. And of course, there are fossils I’d like to see discussed and aren’t, and some I wouldn’t have put in my personal lineup of the history of life. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see someone else’s choices, and follow the timeline of the development of life through their examples.
And of course, some of the fossils are just flat-out gorgeous.
Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Kathryn Harkup
I really enjoyed Harkup’s book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons in her plots — I wasn’t a Christie fan, but the book gave me a whole new appreciation for her work — so I jumped on this the minute I saw it. It begins largely as a biography of Mary Shelley, to be quite frank; there’s very little science for at least half the book, and there’s rather too much re-describing the plot. I get that the actual book isn’t familiar to everyone, but this is billed as pop-sci, not Sparknotes.
Nonetheless, when she does eventually get down to it, it’s fascinating to hear about the science of the day and what Shelley may have been aware of. Calling it the first science fiction book sounds a bit odd, because it’s not really the aesthetic you think of — but Shelley did research and was careful to reflect the science of the day. Maybe it’s not hard SF, and there’s much that seems unlikely now, but it’s still based on the understanding of science that she could possibly have been aware of.
Still a bit too biographical, overall: I believe seeing books in their context is important, but Mary Shelley’s parentage and miscarriages were less than necessary to the overall narrative.
This was a pretty entertaining read about the Voyager missions, with the usual kind of autobiographical detail (extra odd Bell was more a fan of the project than a part of it, though he worked on things that were tangentially related at times) and some biographical detail. Lots of fanboying about Carl Sagan, which is sweet, but not always to the point. It’s a good overview of what the Voyager program did, and there were lots of little titbits I didn’t know.
I think the favourite part for me was discussing the Golden Record, though; I think I’ll have to look up the book he mentioned which goes into it in detail. I love the idea of the Golden Record (I did write a story about it a while ago, after all!), and I especially love the fact that we filled it with “our hopes, not our fears”. It makes it very clear that few people on the project thought there was much chance of it being found, but it was considered so important anyway: a moment for humanity to reflect on itself, and send out something of ourselves into the universe… the good parts, at least.
In terms of the engineering of the Voyager crafts, there’s relatively little, and though the math and physics of figuring out how to send them on their way is mentioned, it’s not explained. It’s more of a cultural history with explanations of what the Voyagers found than a science book, though there are interesting factoids about the various planets and moons of the Solar System which we wouldn’t have known (until later) without Voyager. Likewise, it discusses some of the problems that the Voyagers had — like the seizing of the camera platform — but not nearly all.
Entertaining, and probably as deep as some folks want to go!
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.
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.