Ebola, 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.
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Bring 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.
Adventures 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.
A Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson
I’m not a big fan of insects. If you know me personally, even a little, you’re probably laughing at the understatement there. So okay, the truth is that insects scare me silly. But so did disease at one point, and now look at me tearing through my degree and thinking of working in a lab to study infectious diseases… All through the power of reading enough about it to really pique my curiosity. So maybe I can do the same with insects, and hence this book. Not that bumblebees frighten me that dreadfully; they’re sort of endearing, at their best. But it’s a place to start, and Goulson’s enthusiasm really sold me on it. I even have another book potentially lined up about bees now…
There’s a lot of personal reflection, including talking about what he did as a kid to get involved with bees, and his place in France where he’s rewilding a field to attract more wildlife. It’s not strictly scientific, by-the-book facts, that’s for sure; for me, that added to the appeal. I could almost get excited about bees, through the eyes of Dave Goulson — and I could definitely get excited about his conservation goals and hopes.
Also, you get to learn fun things like the fact that bees have smelly feet…
Recommended! Even if bees are not exactly your cup of honey-sweetened tea. (And yes, yes, I know, bumblebees do not actually make honey. I did pay attention to that much, I promise.)
The Brain, David Eagleman
If you haven’t read anything else about the human brain and how it works, you’ll probably find this interesting. It covers the usual points: a lot of interesting stuff about the way our brains work and the way they perceive the world. And it’s definitely presented in a readable, easy to understand fashion; I think it’d definitely be suitable for a layperson.
For me, however, it got boring pretty fast because I know this stuff. It’s hardly even revision for me – this is stuff I just know. I had the same feeling with one of the author’s previous books, so I’d better keep a mental note and avoid in future!
The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans de Waal
If you’ve ever wondered about the evolution of morality and whether humans are the only moral creatures, this is a good exploration of the idea. Frans de Waal posits that we have an innate sense of morality, and like Jonathan Haidt, suggests that this sense dictates what we do – the emotional tail wags the rational dog, rather than the other way round, in Haidt’s terminology.
The main attraction for me is not the ideas, which I’ve come across plenty of times before, but the anecdotes about the behaviour of wild and captive bonobos and chimpanzees. They’re our closest relatives, on the evolutionary tree, and we can learn a lot about ourselves from observing them. Frans de Waal includes a lot of interesting titbits, and I found his work fascinating, though not surprising.
It probably won’t convince anyone who thinks that morality comes only as handed down from God, but if you wonder about this kind of thing, you’ll probably find this interesting.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli
Carlo Rovelli writes simply and clearly about some huge ideas, including quantum and relativity. Each chapter is a mere glimpse at the idea – a way of seeing things that may or may not work for the individual reader, but nonetheless offers a perspective, a window from afar.
The writing is, even in translation as I read it, elegant and well put. I don’t feel like I have improved on my understanding of any of these concepts by reading this book, but then, I already had a basic grasp. It might even be easier to appreciate Rovelli’s work sans prior knowledge.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson
If you’re fascinated by the universe but don’t know/understand much about physics, this is a decent place to get some sense-o’-wonder and scope. Tyson throws a ton of facts at you but in a pretty readable way, and he doesn’t linger too long over the difficult questions. It’s pretty much a taster, without getting into some of the big questions like string theory, or getting too bogged down about multiverses and so on.
If you’ve read pop science on the subject before, I guess it’s kind of thin, but it’s enjoyable enough.
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, Angela Saini
There’s a lot of science (and pseudo-science) out there about gender differences and how they affect the way we think. Intelligent people, male and female, often disagree about what exactly it all means, and how evolution has selected for male promiscuity, female passivity, and a host of other stereotypes about the sexes.
Saini has a go at untangling some of this, discussing inherent bias in the researchers looking at this kind of thing, and alternate models that are available for understanding gender differences. She’s definitely successful at making the conversation more complex. For example, a lot of theories have rested on similarities between humans and their close relatives, chimpanzees. Saini points out that other research has shown that bonobos are equally closely related to us, and they have an entirely different social structure.
It seems that easy answers aren’t available, but there are many theories, with supporting evidence, that suggest women have been equally important in forming the human race. That would be my belief, simply because (as Saini points out) pregnancy and childbirth are definitely an important point at which selection will act, particularly in humans where we seem to be dependent on having other support.
An interesting read, but nothing that I think is revolutionary or likely to convince people that male and female brains aren’t physically different in structure. Note: if you think of gender as being a spectrum rather than a binary, be aware that this book definitely treats it as a binary with two distinct sexes. It doesn’t touch on transgender men/women at all.
Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis, Kathryn Lougheed
Or mostly the making of it, since unmaking it has been so far beyond human powers.
If you think of TB as something that happens to other people, in other countries, or even only in the past, then this is a necessary corrective. It highlights the disease burden borne in particular countries (usually where poverty and poor nutrition support it), among particular groups (refugees finding it hard to access care; homeless people in London) and in people already suffering reduced immune function (people who have HIV). TB is still very much with us, and there are already strains out there which are completely drug resistant.
Let me say that again: we’re so far from beating TB that there are completely drug resistant strains out there which can only be treated with a Hail Mary approach of toxic antibiotics like kanamycin or surgical intervention. And there have only been two new anti-TB agents in recent years, and neither of them are ready to deploy on a large scale. Oh, and by the way, we don’t even have sufficient global supply of the current first line drugs.
I appreciated Lougheed’s focus on mentioning the fact that this drug resistance isn’t due to people not complying with their medication schedules. Antibiotic resistance naturally arises in TB, even if a patient is observed 24/7 and every pill or shot is administered on a precise timeline. We can’t just put this down to people being careless, though there’s no doubt that in some cases that could cause antibiotic resistance.
If you’re a fan of UKIP, you won’t like Lougheed’s commentary on racism, etc; she shares my views, as far as I can tell from this book, but she’s very vocal in giving little respect to that area of the public. I found her likeable for it, but your mileage will no doubt vary.
Anyway, all in all, this is an interesting, timely, not too technical history of the science of TB, and it’s a bit of an eye-opener even for someone relatively aware of the state of things. I found it very readable and illuminating.