Tag: science


Review – Inheritors of the Earth

Posted 5 May, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Inheritors of the Earth by Chris D ThomasInheritors of the Earth, Chris D. Thomas

Inheritors of the Earth is a shockingly optimistic book given the premise: it’s a discussion of the impact of the Anthropocene — of the impact of humans on the world. It’s a huge impact, from pollution to changing the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth to fossil fuels to climate change to global travel… We’ve imported new organisms to every continent, mixed formerly separate species, annihilated species… There is no doubting that, whatever you think of that, humans have irrevocably stamped our mark on the Earth. Chris Thomas doesn’t shy away from that in the least, but he does have a new and more optimistic outlook on it.

The premise of this optimism is basically this: in many ways, globalisation and change have created more diversity, not less. We’ve created niche environments and species have changed to exploit them. While there have been extinctions, there has actually been a net gain in number of species. And as Thomas points out, the world has never been static. We’ve counted up species as they were in 1970 (to take one arbitrary date) and forgotten that that is arbitrary, that it’s a still from a very long movie in which everything, absolutely everything, is in motion. Avengers: Endgame has got nothing on Earth.

To me, the optimism is well-grounded as far as it goes. We can safeguard diversity by moving animals to habitats they can survive in; we can make space for species to survive alongside us. We can limit our impact on the world from now on, we can use technology to safeguard species… as long as we don’t feel too beholden to one static idea of how the world’s ecosystems should work, there’s still plenty to work with. Thomas also reminds us, as readers, that humans are natural. Everything we do is part of Earth’s ecosystem, and as with all other changes to the Earth, we can be adapted to.

I think he’s probably more optimistic than a lot of people, and more optimistic perhaps than I feel, but I agree with Thomas that there is a world to save, and that trying to slam on the brakes now isn’t the way. More change is inevitable, and we have to work within that. I do recommend this book as a way to get a change in perspective — one that reminds us there are ways forward, even as we pass the points of no return.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Hacking the Code of Life

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

Cover of Hacking the Code of Life by Nessa CareyHacking the Code of Life, Nessa Carey

This is a pretty slim volume which introduces the latest in gene editing technology, mostly but not exclusively referring to CRISPR, and its potential uses and implications. I was a little surprised there isn’t more to say about it, but Carey’s explanation of how CRISPR works is beautifully easy to comprehend (enough to make me update my own mental way of explaining it) and her analysis of the state of the art is pretty well on point as far as it goes.

Despite the boundless optimism I’ve seen around CRISPR, for all its potential it hasn’t changed the biomedical world yet (though labwork has already been transformed, as I understand it), and Carey is rightly cautious-but-optimistic in tone. My main complaint is just that I wanted more.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Human Planet

Posted 10 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Human Planet by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. MaslinThe Human Planet, Simon Lewis, Mark Maslin

This book is about the impact humans have had on the world, and perhaps more accurately, it’s about how we pinpoint when that impact really began and whether we should consider the human impact to have started a new geological age for the Earth. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about exactly how humans have changed the world: the Columbian exchange which is leading to the homogenisation of ecosystems, and climate change, of course, but also the deeper impacts to the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

There’s also a lot of rather tedious discussion of how exactly the committees to define geological time are set up, and that I could have done without. I don’t mind some information about that, but I don’t need to hear about the endless infighting and bureaucracy created in such detail! I’m actually interested in how humans have impacted the planet, not the process by which we decide whether to commemorate that by naming a geological era the Anthropocene.

There’s several instances of really bad editing in this volume, too — typos, sentences which don’t quite make sense, etc — which gives it quite a careless overall effect. Some useful information and theories, and some stuff I didn’t know from elsewhere, though!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Unexpected Truth About Animals

Posted 9 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Unexpected Truth about Animals by Lucy CookeThe Unexpected Truth about Animals, Lucy Cooke

Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little of this was actually unexpected to me. There is some interesting and entertaining stuff — including the penguin facts — but some of it was fairly well-worn. Possibly that’s because I have read a fair number of pop-science books, possibly it’s because my parents raised me on a solid diet of David Attenborough, but… meh. Cooke’s writing isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have much of a spark, and I didn’t find it particularly entertaining. Actually, I kept feeling rather bored, and switching books to stay awake longer (to maximise the precious hour or two I spend reading in bed — and completely offline — at the moment!).

So… it wasn’t bad, but neither did it strike me as anything special.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Spirals in Time

Posted 8 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spirals in Time by Helen ScalesSpirals in Time, Helen Scales

Spirals in Time discusses shells — all kinds of shells and shelled creatures — with all kinds of weird and wonderful facts… and others I feel like I really should have known. (An octopus is a mollusc!) If you’re interested in shells already, I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I ended up a bit lost and a bit, well… lacking in giving a shit. Scales’ enthusiasm is palpable, but I’m just not interested enough.

Besides which, I totally agree that anthropogenic climate change is real, but somehow being preached at about it in every book I read is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, thanks, I know all this! I know there’s value in it being there and it’s all true and important, but… arggh! Somehow it’s becoming, unfairly, a pet hate.

This isn’t actually a bad book, just not my thing.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Edge of Memory

Posted 6 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Edge of Memory by Patrick NunnThe Edge of Memory, Patrick Nunn

Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.

However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.

That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).

I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.

The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.

Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind

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

Cover of Lucy: The Beginnings of MankindLucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Donald Johanson, Maitland Edey

This book might be a little old by now, and somewhat superceded by discoveries of other Austrolopithecines and Homo naledi, but it’s excellent for getting a solid understanding of the issues surrounding how we understand human evolution. It’s also excellent as a way of understanding the kind of environment that kind of research and debate is going on within — things have changed now in several ways, no doubt, but the methods of study and research are still true, and an understanding of the existing fossils –and how they were categorised — from when Johanson wrote is still useful.

I have to admit, I wondered about the obvious sour grapes between Johanson and the Leakeys that came up several times in this book. They were such renowned scientists — and honestly, I’d still remember their names before Johanson’s, despite the fame of ‘Lucy’ — but they were so wrong and so unscientific, in this view. It makes me wonder. Obviously, personal bias is likely to have coloured things here!

My favourite part was probably the final section, in which Johanson discussed theories about why humans are bipedal. It’s clearly argued, and while I agree with the critique mentioned in the book itself (I love the line “I’ve never seen an estrus fossil” as a retort), it mostly hangs pretty well together. (Basically: humans are bipedal to effectively look after children, increasing the number of offspring one woman can have; an advantage over most apes, who keep to one child at a time.)

Good stuff, still.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

Posted 28 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter AlvarezT. Rex and the Crater of Doom, Walter Alvarez

In this book, Walter Alvarez discusses the problem, process and solution in figuring out how the KT boundary extinction happened (yep, that’s the death of the dinosaurs). Despite the rather sensational sounding title, it’s a thoughtful book: aimed at the layperson, undoubtedly, but still discussing the process of obtaining evidence, and what that evidence means, in some detail. I found his writing incredibly clear, and though I’m not exactly the right person to judge, I think any intelligent and interested person should be able to follow his arguments.

It’s also oddly charming that instead of talking about Luis Alvarez (Nobel prizewinning scientist) by name, or even as “my father”, he’s called “Dad” throughout. “Dad thought up this idea… I spoke to Dad…” etc.

Obviously, Alvarez doesn’t present many downsides to his own theory, and I imagine there have been more refinements and adjustments since this was published in 1997, but it’s still a surprisingly compulsive read. The opening is surprisingly literary, revealing a love of Tolkien.

My kinda guy, clearly.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

Posted 13 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam RutherfordA Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford

It’s an ambitious title, and it should come as no surprise that that’s not really a history of everyone who ever lived. It’s really a story about some of the things we know from our genes, and it’s a bit of a random sampling at that, covering ear wax (those who have studied genetics will find this no-shocker, since wet vs sticky earwax is a fairly common example of a certain kind of genetic trait), kings, disease, migration, redheads, and all kinds of things in between. To me, it read like a grab bag of interesting facts we know about genetics: yes, the facts are interesting, but a coherent argument leading through a book it is not.

Rutherford’s not a bad writer, and he clearly has an eye for a good story, but… first of all, this level of pop-science is a bit too pop for me now, and secondly, it’s a disorganised mess.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Copernicus Complex

Posted 10 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Copernicus Complex Caleb ScharfThe Copernicus Complex, Caleb Scharf

Ostensibly, this book is about a simple question: are humans alone in the universe? It has to go the long way around to come to any answers, exploring other arguments by way of figuring out whether the Earth is or isn’t rare in the universe and whether or not life is as tightly constrained as some people say, but the core principle of the book is that we need to find a middle ground between the current main ideas — the Copernican view that we can’t be unique, and the Rare Earth view that says life in the universe must be unusual.

Mostly, my wife got to watch me mutter “yes, obviously”, and I’m tempted to quote Lord Peter on Chief Inspector Parker here — it takes Scharf a desperately long time to someone who already has a somewhat formed opinion to “crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion”. That conclusion, in the end, is basically where I stand: not enough data, come back later (with a side of Scharf being pretty sure that neither extreme is going to turn out to be correct, with which I disagree — I think it’s all up for grabs at this point).

So anyway, if you want to know why I came to the conclusion I’ve written in my science blog recently (i.e. “we don’t know and we can’t know based on the current data we have”), this book has a good roundup of the evidence. Scharf isn’t bad at explaining it.

But if you’re looking for answers, I find it as unconvincing as all the other attempts at answering this question.

Rating: 3/5

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