Tag: science


Review – Bones of Contention

Posted 11 January, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Bones of Contention by Paul ChambersBones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals, Paul Chambers

I never quite realised before I read this how much controversy Archaeopteryx stirred up, or the petty quarrels between opposing professors and palaeontologists. I found it interesting that Chambers gave serious consideration to the ideas of people who say that birds aren’t descended directly from dinosaurs; as he says, some of the arguments against that direct relationship do make sense and are worth considering, even though there’s also plenty of evidence on the other side.

Altogether, this is a great analysis of Archaeopteryx, its impact, and what it symbolised. There’s mini biographies of various scientists, including Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog), and some of them are surprisingly fascinating. In a way, this is more about arguments about evolution via natural selection and “missing links” than it is specifically about Archaeopteryx, although there is plenty of info here about the fossil itself as well.

Readable and interesting, though at times there’s a bit too much about the feuds of ridiculous scientists who just wanted to prove each other wrong.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Suspicious Minds

Posted 5 January, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Suspicious Minds by Rob BrothertonSuspicious Minds, Rob Brotherton

Suspicious Minds is not a book about conspiracy theories in the sense of recounting different conspiracy theories for the sake of convincing you of them, or indeed of debunking them. Instead it examines what makes people so susceptible to believing in conspiracies, with a good deal of sympathy — it can be tempting to ask what on earth some people are even thinking to believe the outrageous things they do, but Brotherton doesn’t laugh at them too much. Instead, he shows why the human brain is so prone to believing these things, so easy to influence.

It mostly wasn’t surprising to me, but it’s a good summary of what we know about conspiracy thinking, and it’s a healthy reminder to mind what you believe yourself lest you end up exclaiming that the naked emperor is wearing the most fabulous clothes.

It’s a Bloomsbury Sigma book, though, and I’m relatively unsurprised that it’s good; they tend to be very readable and cover interesting topics. I’m just about at the point where I’m willing to pick them up regardless of the subject.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Viral Storm

Posted 21 December, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Viral StormThe Viral Storm, Nathan Wolfe

If you’re already familiar with pop science books about diseases, this isn’t really going to surprise you any. It’s competently written, though at times the statistics are a little off (as another reviewer pointed out). I don’t agree that he’s too unduly alarmist, though; our current environmental and social conditions are just about perfect for a pandemic (viral or otherwise) to sweep through the world’s population. If you doubt it, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry should disabuse you of that notion, rapidly. And our world is more interconnected now, not less.

I hoped that this might be a little more in depth, given Wolfe being a biologist and all, but there’s nothing that really elevates it above other pop science books available. It’s honestly rather forgettable.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Zika: The Emerging Epidemic

Posted 16 December, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of ZIkaZika: The Emerging Epidemic, Donald G. McNeil

This isn’t written by a scientist studying Zika, but by a science reporter. Given that, it’s not terribly in depth about the disease itself, but rather provides something of an overview, written in an engaging and easy to read way. If you’re interested in learning the facts about Zika (at least as per the point when the book was sent to press), this is a good choice to my mind. It’s sometimes a little reliant on anecdotes, because of course much of the in-depth research on Zika was (and is) yet to be completed. Obviously, he has an interest in making it sound interesting and more than a little horrifying, but broadly speaking I trusted the sources he used.

A number of people have given this book relatively low ratings because McNeil is a big proponent of the advice to delay planned pregnancies if you live in a Zika-infected area. It’s unfeminist, people say; it ignores the fact that some of these areas have a high risk for sexual assault, it ignores female choice, etc, etc. I don’t quite get it: the first instance, he refers to planned pregnancy, so it’s not like he’s saying “don’t get sexually assaulted”. In the latter, you can choose to have a baby when you’re at risk of contracting Zika if you like, but then you must know and accept that your child could die or be severely harmed by it. McNeil doesn’t say “pregnancy should be banned and people who get pregnant should not get healthcare”. He says, “If I wanted a healthy baby, and I was planning to become pregnant, I would wait until I was sure I wasn’t at risk for Zika.” Which is fairly easy, since as far as we can tell, once you’ve had Zika once, you’re immune and there would no longer be a risk. And of course, there’s the potential for vaccines and eradication, in the longer term.

There’s also a bit of criticism of people who get pregnant in Zika-affected areas and then don’t take precautions not to contract Zika. Which is fair: you can choose to do risky things, but why should anyone think it’s a good idea?

All in all, I don’t think McNeil is wrong (or anti-feminist). He’s giving solid advice backed up by what we know of Zika. I don’t believe it’s anti-feminist to point out that drinking alcohol when you’re trying to get pregnant is likely to harm the baby once you do conceive if you don’t realise it, and that you’re best just avoiding drinking alcohol if you want your baby to be healthy. This is a similar situation.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – What On Earth Evolved… In Brief

Posted 12 December, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of What On Earth Evolved?What on Earth Evolved… in Brief, Christopher Lloyd

It’s pretty much what it says on the tin. To a biologist, the choices of species aren’t particularly surprising, though I might perhaps have included fewer animals and more bacteria and plants. Even though this is a cut-down version of the full book, it’s still pretty exhaustive (and at times a bit exhausting). It’s full of interesting titbits, but nothing at great length, and a large portion of the back is taken up by charts attempting to put things into some sort of ranking as to how much it has affected the world. The focus is very much with Lloyd’s subtitle, “100 Species That Have Changed the World”.

Easy enough to read, though perhaps one you might prefer to dip in and out of than just read straight through.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Goldilocks and the Water Bears

Posted 29 November, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Goldilocks and the Water Bears by Louisa PrestonGoldilocks and the Water Bears, Louisa Preston

The best thing about the book is that title. It’s just inspired. Unfortunately, it’s also misleading; actual tardigrades are covered in about three pages, buried in the middle of the book. Most of it is about the search for other life in the universe, what it might look like, where we might find it, and how it might survive. Granted, the blurb does say that, calling it “a tale of the origins and evolution of life, and the quest to find it on other planets, on moons, in other galaxies, and throughout the universe.” But still, I’d hoped for tardigrades to be a little more central, or at least more relevant than just another example in a litany of living creatures which can tolerate extreme conditions (or rather, what would be extreme from our point of view). At the very least, I was hoping for a survey of where in our solar system tardigrades could happily live. You can extrapolate that, but… I just wanted more water bears, okay?!

In terms of the writing, there are two especially irritating habits: one is a constant grammar failing, where the start of the sentence doesn’t agree in number with the end, and the other is an unfortunate habit of italicising key words in a way which gives the sentences really weird emphases. Sometimes names are randomly italicised, sometimes not. It’s not consistent and at the same time, it’s so pervasive as to be distracting.

(E.g. in the sentence above, Preston would have written, “There is two especially irritating habits”. No! That’s not… No! I can’t remember if she ever actually did it while stating a number as in that sentence, admittedly, but she would use “is” when there were two or more things being stated. No!)

The actual content is fine, if you weren’t hoping too much for more info on tardigrades. It’s a pretty workmanlike exploration of the concept of the Goldilocks zone and how it might help us identify suitable planets that are not our own.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Great Influenza

Posted 26 November, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Great Influenza by John M. BarryThe Great Influenza, John M. Barry

Whew. The Great Influenza is a heck of a read: there’s a lot of information, and it takes quite a while to get to the actual point of the epidemic, because first it covers certain aspects of medical history. As with so many books like this, in places it becomes a sort of biography of the greats who were involved — it’s going to be interesting to see pop-science deal with the increasingly team-based approach to science, without central characters to pin the narrative on. In many ways, this is more history than science, though it does go into the discovery of the actual cause of influenza, the (lack of) treatments available then and now, the effects it has on the human body, etc. Still, it’s also very much about public health policy and medical practice: it is not just “oooh cool a deadly pathogen”.

Which, if you’re scoffing and thinking that flu isn’t a deadly pathogen, do think again. Even seasonal flu can kill those who are weakened in some way, or unlucky, and the 1918 flu killed from 50 to 100 million people in the years the pandemic ran through (about 1918-1920, to the best of my understanding). It’s difficult to predict how flu will mutate, because it does so all the time, and there are various different strains active in the population at different times. It’s also present in other host species, meaning we can cross-infect our livestock and pick up infections from them.

Flu is a problem, and it was a huge problem back in 1918 without so much commercial flight and recreational travel. The way it swept the globe then is nothing to what it could do now if we’re complacent. If you’re blasé about the potential of a flu pandemic like H1N1, I recommend this to change your mind.

There’s a lot of gory detail here about how the 1918 flu killed, alongside the more sterile descriptions of lab experiments and the dry series of events, and the nitty-gritty of how the influenza virus invades a host cell. It’s not exactly a thrilling read unless you find the topic truly fascinating (I do), but there is a lot here of interest.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Ebola

Posted 17 November, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Ebola by David QuammenEbola, David Quammen

This is actually an excerpt from the excellent book Spillover, with a few details added because it was published slightly later, as the ebola epidemic really kicked off. It doesn’t contain anything new that wasn’t in Spillover, and I actually ended up asking for a refund because that wasn’t clear up-front.

However, it’s a great excerpt, and I do strongly recommend Quammen’s writing on diseases — just don’t be fooled into getting the excerpts of Spillover instead of just buying the whole book. It’s a crafty idea by his publishers, but it’s just annoying. The full book links up the various diseases and expands on themes they share; this mostly comes across from Ebola on its own, but you get a much fuller picture with the rest of the book to refer to.

Information: good, packaging: disingenuous.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Bring Back the King

Posted 14 November, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Bring Back the King by Helen PilcherBring Back the King, Helen Pilcher

If you’ve read Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth, all of the content in this book should be pretty familiar. Helen Pilcher’s voice is entertaining, and some of her examples are different, but the basic concept is the same. I wouldn’t recommend reading both, though I would recommend either of them if you haven’t read the other.

The only thing you may not enjoy about Pilcher’s is the flippant humour — she even has a chapter about cloning Elvis, for example. She’s a stand-up comedian as well a biologist and a journalist, so it might well be that you just don’t get along with her sense of humour. I’ll admit it did begin to wear on me. Nonetheless, she presents the information clearly and in a way that’s easy to digest, so it might be the best way to get the information across for some folks.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Adventures in Human Being

Posted 8 November, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Adventures in Human Being by Gavin FrancisAdventures in Human Being, Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis’ book is basically a series of essays about the human body and how it works (and how it breaks), from the head down. It’s pretty readable, with anecdotes from Francis’ time as a doctor, though it’s not something that grabbed me as much as, say, Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm. Actually, it’s fading a bit from memory already. It’s certainly readable and filled some time during an epic plane and train ride from Canada through Amsterdam to Belgium; it’s not revelatory, or amazingly written. I’m a little surprised, though, at how ‘meh’ I feel about it in retrospect.

Rating: 3/5

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