Tag: science

Review – The Apple Orchard

Posted September 29, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Apple Orchard by Pete BrownThe Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit, Pete Brown

Broadly speaking, I really enjoyed this book. I came across it during my sudden random interest in histories about food, and though it’s also a history about cider and farming fruit, it ticks some of those boxes. It’s perhaps a little unusual in that the author can’t actually eat apples due to an allergy, so though he happily tastes cider (which doesn’t trigger the allergy), he’s otherwise stuck with other people describing the flavours (and textures, which always seem to be mentioned when people describe eating an apple).

There are… a few things that drove me absolutely nuts, though, so people would be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t actually like the book at all. The first thing is the firm location of King Arthur stories in England, as an English thing (just like apples are English, even when he’s talking about ones from South Wales). He’s done some half-assed research, like this:

The problem for Celts who want to claim the Arthurian myth as their own is that the details — such as we assume them now — don’t stack up. […] But Sarmartian warriors did ride horses, which were first domesticated on the Kazakh steppe, and they did wear chainmail and armour of overlapping scales. If we look at the customs and legends from the homeland of these armour-clad horse warriors, other familiar aspects leap out. […] There’s even a sacred golden cup in the Central Asian myths that sounds an awful lot like the Holy Grail.

Sounds very convincing, right? Except the man has done the very bare minimum of research, and quite possibly skimmed his theory off the blog of a random Arthurian enthusiast. It’s manifest bollocks from start to finish: he bases his theory about King Arthur being a Sarmartian on the grounds that we imagine King Arthur to have been armour-clad and riding a horse. But that’s just the version of King Arthur that we’re most familiar with, one that wasn’t really codified until much later. Early sources don’t mention anything about horses or chain mail or any of that stuff. If the sacred golden cup of Central Asian myths has any links to Arthurian literature, those links are no earlier in the Arthurian canon than Chrétien de Troyes, who made the first reference to a graal — which wasn’t even a cup.

Meaning, dear friends, that Pete Brown’s imagined parallels are largely way too late to have any bearing at all on whether Celts can claim the Arthurian myth as their own. We obviously can: the Welsh have the oldest sources.

It is a little worrying when I come across research as woeful as this in a book that involved allegedly years of research. Kind of throws the rest in a bad light — as does saying that CRISPR involves turning genes on and off, rather than full scale gene editing. CRISPR, if we can get past the problem of targeting it precisely, can do whatever gene editing we want. Plus, if you’re going to reference CRISPR, then maybe don’t just explain it like that with a throwaway footnote saying “No, me neither” — some of your readers do actually understand what CRISPR is, or are more than capable of looking it up.

(In case you want to edit that footnote, Mr Brown, here’s my suggested text: “CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It’s a tool adapted from bacterial defences against invasive viruses which can be used for gene editing.” Fixed that for you; not much more difficult to understand than “No, me neither”, and much better at giving context if someone is interested.)

Also, it’s really, truly, incredibly, breathtakingly, moronically irresponsible to write that you are worried about eating “moth bits” in an apple if the tree was gene-edited to include a resistance gene from moths. It’s a piece of DNA; it doesn’t make bits of a moth, you idiot. It makes a protein which has nothing to do with any part of the moth’s lifecycle. If you took that gene and begged it, it could not become a moth, nor could you reconstruct moth DNA from it. If you really want to make some kind of comment about gene editing, I strongly recommend you go and spend at least one more year on your research, because you patently don’t understand a thing about it right now.

All of that said, I realise that makes it sound like I hated the book, but the parts where he sticks to what he knows and has experienced are very pleasant — he waxes poetical about the beauty of apples, the traditions surrounding them, and the events he’s taken part in that involve apples. He should have stuck to that, because overall it’s a really enjoyable read.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How to Read a Paper

Posted September 13, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Read a Paper by Tricia GreenhalghHow to Read a Paper, Tricia Greenhalgh

This is chiefly useful if you’re planning on reading papers in order to apply them to a medical context: it basically teaches you how to use the concepts of evidence-based medicine. However, it can also be useful for those who have to read papers in general, because there is a good discussion of how to read the statistics without getting overwhelmed and weirded out — and it has some hints about what to watch out for in terms of poor methodology and bad data manipulation.

It’s a slow read, of course, but it’s a worthwhile one if that sounds like something you might need to apply in your work or study!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – How Emotions Are Made

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman BarrettHow Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett

The first half of this book is great. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains her subject well, dissecting previous evidence as well as her own research and synthesising them into her full theory. In summary, she posits that emotions are not something pre-formed in the brain, not something genetic, and not something you can point to on a scan. Instead, each instance of emotion is constructed from all kinds of different inputs, in the moment, and may not look anything like another instance of the same emotion if the subject is put in a brain scanner. This makes sense of a lot of things, and makes perfect sense to me — in fact, it starts to seem totally obvious!

She also mentions the “illusion of free will” almost in passing, in a way that made the lightbulb click on for me. I always hate the idea that I don’t have free will, and that “I” am essentially forced to act in a certain way — or more accurately, have no option to act in a different way — by combinations of my upbringing, culture and biology. But the point is that “I” am constructed by all those things anyway, and there is no real separation into “conscious” and “unconscious”, where the “unconscious” isn’t really me. The unconscious part is me as well, and even if it does things without waiting for the conscious me to weigh in — even though the body starts to act before the “decision” to act is consciously made — then… that’s still me. It seems obvious in retrospect, and is completely in line with everything else I believe (mind/body dualism has never been for me).

Why I never saw it that way before… well. Like Robert Sapolsky says in his book Behave, people tend to imagine their conscious mind as a sort of homunculus directing the brain’s actions, and it’s not really the case — but it’s a powerful illusion. It’s that idea of a homunculus separate from the rest of the brain that makes it feel like there’s a problem.

I’m not entirely sure I’m coherent here, but I really appreciated Feldman Barrett’s aside about that. It made things click into place for me.

The second half of the book is more about the applicability of her theories, and it worked less well. There are good examples there of dissecting how her theory works, but in the end her conclusions are familiar ones. That said, her view of constructed emotion, and the ability to impact how your emotions are constructed, give people rather more responsibility for their brains that scientists like (since I mentioned him already) Sapolsky seem to do. That’s interesting and useful.

Overall, I found this really interesting, but the applicability chapters dragged a bit.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Sirens of Mars

Posted August 23, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewart JohnsonThe Sirens of Mars, Sarah Stewart Johnson

The Sirens of Mars is partly the history of science about Mars, and partly about the author’s relationship with Mars. That’s a bit of a trend in popular science, and to be honest, I’m starting to really dislike it — at least when it veers from the writer’s career and things they worked on (pretty relevant) to things which are not really relevant (giving birth to a child). It’s not supposed to be your autobiography; it’s billed as a book about Mars.

Despite finding that aspect frustrating, I mostly enjoyed this. It is a touch biographical about scientists like Sagan as well, but at least that told me things I didn’t already know (e.g. I hadn’t known about Sagan’s struggle with achalasia). There were some details of the Mars missions and the people around them which were new to me as well — I didn’t remember anything about Phoenix at all, totally overshadowed by Curiosity in my memory, I suppose!

What we know about Mars has been filled with missteps where we dreamed more than we could actually detect, like the canals and Sagan’s dream of fast-moving creatures that we wouldn’t capture with a camera. This book is an interesting, if slightly meandering, recounting of that journey and where it has brought us. It might be unsatisfying to some that there’s still a lot of science left to do on Mars, and we don’t have solid answers to some of the questions Johnson discusses. I love the idea that we always have more to learn, though.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Behave

Posted August 17, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Behave by Robert M. SapolskyBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky

There isn’t much new in Behave if you’ve read a few different books about human behaviour, though he does have a very clear way of explaining some basic biological concepts that I initially found really engaging (despite my own familiarity with them). In general, he uses and discusses the same studies and anecdata that everyone uses to explain various aspects of human behaviour, and mostly this book pulls it all together to make some general statements about human behaviour and what causes it. The main takeaway, of course, is “it’s complicated” — but he does a good job of picking things apart, relating them to each other, and putting forward his views.

Personally, I find this kind of book (and this book specifically) challenging because I would love to believe I have free will, and not just in choosing what colour my socks are. Sometimes I get a really good example of how I don’t (PTSD and other anxiety disorders can really demonstrate that), and I don’t like it… and this book is just such an experience. As a scientist, there’s just no room left for what Sapolsky calls the ‘homunculus’ that can pilot you, unaffected by hormones and past experiences and the size of your hippocampus.

And… in the end, for me, it felt like Sapolsky was reiterating a lot of stuff I already knew, at very great length. So if it’s something you haven’t read about or looked into before, I think it’d be a good place to start. The basics are really well laid out! But if you’ve been there and read that, then maybe give it a miss.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Braiding Sweetgrass

Posted August 8, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall KimmererBraiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer

From the reviews and blurbs I read for this, I was expecting something that used scientific knowledge a little more than this. It is there, woven into how the author understands the world… but much of it is autobiography, a memoir of how the author came to understand the world through an amalgam of scientific knowledge and training (she is a botanist) and the teachings of indigenous people. She is Potawatomi herself, though those are not the only traditions she references.

I’m afraid that far from being a spirit-nourishing breath of fresh air, as others have found it, it ultimately struck me as very sentimental. She romanticises indigenous lives and teachings to a huge degree. It’s difficult, because of course much of what she says about the changes colonisation brought to the US is true, and I agree with her about the need to live more constructively with other beings on Earth — I don’t think there’s much I actually disagreed with at all! (I can think of one point: she wants to see ecosystems restored to exactly what they were, while I’m not sure that is always possible or desirable. The clock can’t simply be turned back.)

…And yet, still, I found the whole book very sentimental and a little, I guess, vicariously embarrassing? I’m sure the author would view that to some extent as my poverty of spirit, but on the one hand, I don’t find science so devoid of wonder and warmth as she says, and on the other, I don’t think I need to imbue inanimate objects with innate purpose and souls in order to treat the world with respect.

Admittedly, it also does not help that I don’t share her experiences. Britain has different flora and fauna, obviously, and it’s that which would be more likely to spark off that sentimentality in me; talk about wild blackberries on the side of Caerphilly mountain and I can summon up the right warmth, but I have no idea what sweetgrass even looks like beyond the very vaguest outline.

In the end, just… didn’t enjoy it. Had hoped for more science and less sentiment.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ouch!: The New Science of Pain

Posted August 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ouch by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie and Margee KerrOuch!: The New Science of Pain, Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Margee Kerr

I’d somewhat feared when I picked this book up that it would be unsympathetic to those with chronic pain, in the way that some doctors are at the moment, because the overprescription of opiates is so much on their minds that everyone reporting pain sounds like a drug seeker to them. There is a bit of commentary on the fact that modern people are more likely to report pain and to be afraid of pain, etc, etc, but overall I found that the two authors were fairly sympathetic and willing to seek out multiple views.

One of the authors has experience with chronic pain and a degenerative illness, and both of them make sure to position themselves so the reader understands where they’re coming from — perhaps too autobiographical for some when it comes to popular science, but I think it was valuable in this case. Either way, both seem to have done a lot of research, including hands-on. Their attitude does lean toward “pain is a good thing and painkillers are generally the wrong treatment”, but doesn’t exclude the usefulness of painkillers for some people. It’s mostly sensitive and sympathetic, as I said, including toward the BDSM community, whose attitudes toward pain they also discuss.

It’s a layperson-friendly guide to what we understand about pain, not just biologically (although it does discuss that) but also psychologically and socially… and it discusses not just physical pain, but to some degree emotional pain as well (particularly as you can’t really have one without the other: human experience isn’t neatly divided like that). It was what I’d hoped for from another book which was much more about responses to pain, so that was nice. Overall, it’s super readable, and I flew through it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Elephants On Acid

Posted August 6, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Elephants on Acid by Alex BoeseElephants on Acid, Alex Boese

I was warned by reviews that Boese covers some abhorrent experiments on animals without any kind of critique, and that’s correct. Boese seems more interested in the shock and amusement factor of some of these experiments, including expecting people to be rather shocked that scientists have tried to study sex in the lab. I actually knew about most of these experiments and findings before, so there was nothing much shocking or surprising for me — except his casual tone about animal experimentation.

(I’m not personally against animal experimentation when necessary, when there’s a possibility of great benefit. I think. It’s a stance that wavers across time, something that I have great difficulty with. What I never change my mind on is unnecessary experimentation: harming animals just to see what happens. Like giving them a massive and deadly overdose of acid, for example.)

It’s a good overview of some “weird” experiments, some of which have produced useful results. Otherwise, meh?

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Snowball in a Blizzard

Posted August 2, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven HatchSnowball in a Blizzard, Steve Hatch

Snowball in a Blizzard is a great examination of something that goes overlooked far too often — or blown out of proportion in ways that serve weird fringe agendas: the fact that very little in medicine is certain, and it’s not possible to put numbers on many/most things about biology. People forget that when looking for certainty about how to reduce their risk of cancer, or blow it up into something quite different when they want to argue against the importance of vaccines… and it’s really important to understand why there is uncertainty in medicine and what it really means, if you want to make truly informed decisions about your own healthcare. Informing people about this is Steve Hatch’s aim here, and I think he does a great job.

There are one or two points which have suffered a bit in time — for instance, the Rosenhan experiments that he leans on heavily to make a point or two have been discredited, with Susannah Cahalan’s The Great Pretender arguing pretty convincingly that Rosenhan falsified much of the data in his study, which was never run in the way he described. There are also some references to SARS, which are pretty apocalyptic… But broadly speaking, Hatch’s points hold true.

There’s some really fascinating stuff here that I knew very little about. For example, screening mammography — mammograms for people who have not discovered lumps or had any other symptoms of breast cancer — is, on balance, probably harmful for most people. This doesn’t mean that diagnostic mammography is a bad thing, but the indiscriminate screening of everyone in certain groups includes far too many people who are at too low a risk of cancer. Thus, false positives are common, and a lot of mental distress results — and sometimes worse, with people even ending up having unnecessary mastectomies.

Hatch explains the statistics underlying evidence-based medicine really well. I don’t have a good instinctive grasp of statistics, and never have, and this book helped some of these concepts lodge in my brain — which was nice, because I had an exam coming up at that point on exactly some of these types of statistics. I think it would be really useful for anyone who wants to understand better how uncertainty in medicine works and what that might mean for making decisions about your own care.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth

Posted July 28, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas MorrisThe Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, Thomas Morris

The answer to most of the “mysteries”/”curiosities” here is “someone was mistaken or lying”. I was hoping for some weirder tales, to be honest, and some of this is really just “hur hur people swallow weird things sometimes” and “lololol someone put WHAT up their butt?” I was raised by a doctor, none of this is a shock to me, though I’m gonna provoke an internal wince in anyone in my family by just mysteriously leaving one word here: “lightbulbs”. (It’s probably worse than you’re imagining.)

It’s a fun enough light read, though for me it really harped too much on obvious hoaxes, misunderstandings and just the weird things people do that isn’t particularly interesting except that it’s sex-related and idiotic so it’s a reliable source of humour for some people.

Rating: 2/5

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