Pale Rider is about the 1918 flu pandemic known as “Spanish flu”: the fact that it killed many more people than the Great War did is a well-known fact now, and this particular pandemic is credited with making scientists realise the dangers of a global health crisis like this — and the likelihood that it could and would happen again.
I’ll confess, I didn’t think I’d learn that much about the flu from reading this book, having already read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, but in fact there was a lot here that was new to me. Not so much in understanding the disease itself — if Barry’s book didn’t do that, studying for my exams certainly did — but in understanding the impact it had on the world, and particularly on non-Western countries. There’s a lot here that’s new to me about China and Russia, for instance, whereas I feel like The Great Influenza focused much more on the American side of things.
There’s also, I feel, more of an attempt to understand the social and political effects of the pandemic, rather than just the medical and scientific.
However, my end feeling is the same: influenza is a fascinating topic, and if it doesn’t scare you (in a measured informed way that leads to taking sensible precautions like getting the flu vaccine every year), it should. Spinney has a common-sense approach to it all — there’s a lot of things that need to align to make a pandemic, and Spinney doesn’t overstate the likelihood of that happening, but she does lay out the risks and emphasise the need for data collection and disease surveillance. Hear hear!
This started out fascinating, but started to wear on me. Basically, it’s a ‘gallery’ of various molecules that are important in one way or another to human life. There are nutrients we require, poisons that kill us, fuels we use, things that make useful objects, etc, etc. It’s possibly better just being dipped into than read cover to cover; I certainly got tired of all the fuels and the relatively similar titbits about some of the elements. It’s not bad, but it didn’t keep me very interested either.
I’m hoping his book specifically on poisons is more up my street…
If you don’t actually know much about the history of science, this book might well be for you; for me, it was painfully obvious, hitting exactly the topics I expected, skimming over what I expected it to skim. A worse crime, however, is that the author simply wasn’t accurate: if you’re going to write a non-fiction book, it’s important to make sure you don’t speak beyond your research.
It does not take much research to find out that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not pictographic representations of language. (To be perfectly accurate, some of the characters echo in form the thing they name; a cow head shape might mean the word cow, for instance. However, the languages also contain phonetic characters.)
I didn’t read beyond that. On that point, I knew the author was wrong — on a subject that isn’t even a particular area of expertise for me; how, therefore, could I trust him to have done his research about anything else? If we’re talking deeply technical details, that’s different, but it is widely understood that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not solely logographic. There’s too little time for something where I distrust the research and editing and I’m bored.
Part discussion of the Burgess Shale, part rebuttal of Stephen Jay Gould’s premises in Wonderful Life, this book was a bit of a slog to get through for me. It’s a topic I find fascinating, but something about the style mostly had me snoozing, even when he entertainingly decided to take a turn for the science fictional and imagine a whole dive into the seas at the time of the Cambrian explosion. (That bit was mostly entertaining through being surprising, though also through trying to bring to life the animals that could’ve been seen if that could happen, and how they would have behaved — the most speculative bit of the book, basically.)
I feel like Wonderful Life is probably the more fun to read and the more comprehensive, but it’s still fascinating to read about the point of view of a scientist who has actually worked with the Burgess Shale. Whatever you think of Conway Morris’ style, he’s a scientist Gould respected and an expert in his field.
At this point, I must admit I’m a bad judge of pop-science when it covers biology. To me this is a very easy read now, covering simple topics, but I know I wouldn’t have felt that way a couple of years ago. If you’re interested in evolutionary biology, though, this is a very good primer on the science of Evo Devo: understanding evolutionary relationships through understanding the development of embryos, how certain genes work in causing large morphological differences even though almost the same gene can be found in a wildly different species.
I think if you have a reasonable understanding of genetics and how proteins are made, you should be okay here: it’s not requiring expertise, though it may take concentration to follow some of the reasoning if you’re not already familiar. If you are, it illustrates the principles nicely, and I imagine a full colour copy of the book (if it exists) would be rather physically gorgeous as well. There’s a lot of black-and-white images of butterfly wings, for instance, in my particular edition. The points could probably have been more clearly demonstrated with colour images where the differences are easier to highlight…
All the same, a fascinating book, whether you’re an expert or not (I think). Evo Devo is a bit of a buzzword for some biologists lately, and this book is worth the read for learning about that. I wish I’d read it before the module I did that included some of this stuff: it would have definitely made the learning part come easier!
I’ve been joking that my wife should be worried I picked this up, but really I was here to understand how poisons work. Although the ‘social history’ part of the title is definitely true, describing famous historical poisoning cases, it also includes little profiles on each poison which explain how it has the effects it has in chemical terms. I already knew some of the most notorious ones (partially because of the excellent book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons, A is for Arsenic), but there were others I didn’t know.
Overall, it’s a bit shallow, focusing on some of the most sensational cases of poisoning and basically whipping around the types of poison that’re out there and how they’ve been used for suicide, assassination, etc. Still, it had its interesting points, and if you’re interested in true crime there’s a couple of cases I knew nothing about.
Not something to rush out and get, in my opinion, and while spouses should maybe be worried it’d put ideas into someone’s head, there’s no practical information about obtaining poisons or anything dangerous like that! It really is much more about the history, with explanations of how poisons actually do their damage.
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, John H. Taylor, Daniel Antoine
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries is a fascinating volume which peers beneath the wrappings of eight mummies in the British Museum’s collection, using state of the art CT scanning and reconstruction to do so completely non-destructively. The mummies are from different areas of Egypt, and different eras as well, from mummies preserved naturally through to mummies prepared using every trick of the embalmers’ trade. There are amazing images in this book, with various different views of each mummy, and additional notes explaining significant features (like poles used to stabilise detached heads, an odd metal(?) ring somewhere in the oldest mummy’s abdomen, etc. There’s also some background information of a fairly basic sort, if you already know a fair bit about Egypt — if you don’t, this volume gets you up to speed enough to understand the mummies, in relatively few pages.
One quibble I had was the constant insistence that male bodies in sarcophagi with female names were definitely put there by accident (either in antiquity or now). I’ll admit I don’t know anything about gender in Ancient Egypt, but gender has always been fluid and expressed in different ways in different societies. Probably some of the bodies are in the wrong sarcophagi, owing to the way their tombs were pillaged and the way collections were swapped about with little attention paid to provenance. But… just maybe some of the ambiguities might be best resolved by thinking about whether we’re looking at gender the same way. Clearly the wrapping and presentation of mummies reflected social roles as much as anything else, as demonstrated by the young girl identified as a temple singer, mummified and presented as a desirable young woman — the intent does not seem to have been to reflect a person accurately, at any rate. Who says they weren’t wrapped and presented in a way meant to represent who they were in life, rather than the bare details biology gives us?
I know I’m not an expert in that field, but I can’t help but think that some acknowledgement of that as a possibility would have fit in well. Instead, it felt as if everything was explained away as a mistake on someone else’s part, rather than a potential misunderstanding on the part of those investigating the mummies now.
Still a fascinating book, though; perfect for someone fascinated by mummies.
Pyenson is clearly obsessed with whales — with the idea of them, with studying them, with understanding them and sharing that understanding. In this volume, he does his best to share all those things: his enthusiasm for whales as much as his academic interest, his wonder at them as much as his understanding of them as part of their environment. He tours through whales of the past through their fossils (so if you’re a palaeontology nut, this one’s for you too!), whales of the present through observation and dissection (so if you’re into biology…) and whales of the future through trying to understand how they impact their environment, and what the seas might be like without them.
It’s a fascinating journey: whales aren’t one of the topics I read about obsessively, but I wasn’t going to pass up a book about them from the library, either. Pyenson’s style is breezy, and he manages to communicate wonder even about things that might sound kind of gross (like whale dissection). To my surprise, I think I was most fascinated by his chapter about the weird new sense organ he discovered in whales’ chins, via actually being there on a whaling station to see freshly killed whales being butchered. (He has mixed feelings about this, but correctly notes that sometimes, you have to use the opportunities you get.)
I’m not raring to go dashing off to become an expert in matters marine, which is the sign of a non-fiction book that really gets to me, but nonetheless there’s plenty of interest here for the armchair enthusiast. If the idea of these massive mammals takes your breath away a little bit, this book might just augment that.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte
If you’re not really up to date on the modern science around dinosaurs, this is a pretty good way to catch up. It doesn’t go into enormous amounts of detail about any one dinosaur, and it’s honestly rather more surprised about feathered dinosaurs than I would think is warranted at this point, but it makes for a good overview. There is a lot of personal detail here about what made him interested in dinosaurs, various scientists, etc, etc. There’s a lot of name-dropping, and though I didn’t twig at the time, other reviews mentioning that it seems like a total boys-only club are quite correct.
It’s nothing astounding and not really in-depth enough to have wowed me. More of an adult’s version of a pretty basic intro to dinosaurs. That has its place, but not really on my shelves!
I’m pro-GMOs, so you could say it’s typical that I’d like this book, and I’m really the only kind of audience it would reach — but I think Lynas is genuinely attempting to dispell myths and introduce other people to the actual science behind GMOs, for all that. He was himself once very much anti-GMO, and participated in the crop destructions and demonstrations against people who tried to grow genetically engineered crops in the UK; he was “converted” by actually looking into the science behind it, and finding that behind the scaremongering, there’s very little real science.
He does also (perhaps somewhat weirdly) mount a defence of Monsanto; some aspects are like a case study of the problems of GM crops in action, but at other times he seems to be conflating the rise of GM crops as a whole with Monsanto — not quite the same thing; one doesn’t need to defend Monsanto to prove that GMOs are no threat. (Although he’s also not wrong that many of the kneejerk claims against Monsanto are on shaky ground. For example, the idea that Monsanto deliberately sell sterile seeds in order to force farmers to purchase new seed every year. That idea is just poor understanding of genetics: the second generation of seed may not actually carry the Roundup-resistant gene, in the same way that the seeds of hybrid crops don’t necessarily breed true.)
Lynas writes well and clearly, and often evocatively; his struggle with becoming pro-GMO isn’t drawn out in angsty detail, but it’s plain that it wasn’t an easy change for him and that he made the decision based on facts he could no longer ignore. Perhaps for some people, his presentation of the known facts will be enough to tip the scales. I’m somewhat doubtful (I think a lot of people who are anti-GM will automatically reject this book as being by a sellout, particularly because of the defence of Monsanto), but maybe it’ll help. If you’re on the fence, it should definitely help to clarify your views.