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.
The main takeaway from this book is never to trust what people think studies say. Always read the study and look at the data yourself if you really want your opinion to be based on fact. Once you dig into it, you’ll find people making the weirdest assumptions or failing to account for their own bias. Fine mentions study after study that have been overinterpreted and misinterpreted due to faulty premises in the whole experimental set-up. I wouldn’t suggest that you take Fine’s word for it: even though she points out some fallacies, no doubt she falls into some of her own. That’s the nature of humans, and that’s why peer-reviewed and replicated science is so important.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff discussed and she makes her points clearly. It mostly accords with what I understand about differences between sexes, and overall I found myself nodding a lot (probably a sign you should also treat anything I say about gender difference with caution — I have strong pre-formed opinions that are already fairly in line with Fine’s). I found her entertaining, as well as clear, which is always a plus in a pop-science book as long as it doesn’t go too far.
If nothing else, if you want to dig into the topic this book is good for context, and has a wealth of notes and sources you can follow up. If you do believe that there’s an in-built difference between the sexes for biological reasons, you might find Fine a bit too stringently against the evidence on your side, which she spends a lot of time dismantling. That might be a bit infuriating for you, so if you’re just looking for the facts, go straight to the source.
Yes, really, and this really is a serious book, referring to studies and discussing them in a sober and mostly non-profane fashion. At times the casual swearing seemed a little much (a bit of a gimmick, rather than me feeling bad about swearing at all), but there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in here. There’s a chapter on Tourette’s, for example: although Byrne explains that it doesn’t really belong in a book about swearing being good for you, because in the case of Tourette’s it ends up being alienating and awful, but it goes into what causes people with Tourette’s to swear, and a little bit about what that tells us about swearing in general.
There’s also a really horrifying (to me) discussion of the fact that women with cancer who swear (due to their cancer but not necessarily about their cancer) tend to lose the support of the people around them, even their close female friends. They’re dealing with something fucking horrifying, they’re probably in pain and exhausted, but they’ve got to watch their language too? I hope Byrne’s hypothesis that this effect will fade with more recent generations is correct.
There’s also discussion of swearing and gender, and my favourite bit, the discussion of swearing in toilet trained chimps. (Teach a chimp that poop is dirty and it will see it as such, act ashamed if caught pooping somewhere it shouldn’t, and start using dirtiness as an insult!)
It’s all pretty fascinating, and while I’m not a major swearer unless I’m doing the final missions in Mass Effect, at which point the brain to mouth filter drops out of the picture, I’m glad to acknowledge that sometimes, it turns out it really is good for you — helping you to bear pain and stress, bonding you with teammates, etc, etc.
Ever heard voices? A surprising number of people have, and this book delves into the way we think and how that influences the phenomenon of hearing voices. He’s careful not to stigmatise people who do hear voices, while still indicating what happens for most people and what’s different for people who do hear voices. I’d always heard the idea that schizophrenics hear voices because they’re actually misattributing their own thought processes, but Fernyhough really goes into the pros and cons of that interpretation, and some other alternative understandings.
It’s not just about schizophrenics, though. A lot of it is about the way the average person thinks. What percentage of the time do you actually think in words? How long does it take you to complete a thought? What language do you think in, if you’re bilingual? The book goes into all those ideas and discusses some interesting experiments that do their best to capture the objective facts from experiences which are subjective by their very definition.
It’s really fascinating stuff, and it helps that it’s super easy to read. I polished it off in no time.
Subliminal: The New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us, Leonard Mlodinow
This book was a bit of a disappointment. It covers basically the same ground as dozens of other books which purport to explain the irrationality of the human brain, including the same experiments discussed with more or less the same conclusions. I’m wary of the way Mlodinow decides that certain anatomical areas of the brain are solely and uncomplicatedly involved in specific emotions. For example, he identifies the “ventromedial pre-frontal cortex” as being all there is to it when it comes to preferring Coke over Pepsi because of the brand-name. This isn’t my area (alas) so I’m not going to say he’s definitively wrong, but I’ve read around enough to be cautious when someone decides that a bit of brain anatomy means x or y universally. It smacks of going for a simple, catchy answer instead of acknowledging the actual complexity of the brain.
Anyway, it’s probably a good read if you haven’t read one of the dozens of other books covering the same topic, and in its favour I did find myself snorting in amusement at some of Mlodinow’s commentary. It’s nothing new, though.
If you’re interested in planets outside our solar system, this is obviously going to be for you. It explains how planets form and the different ecosystems (of a sort) that different types of planets form in. Like the other Bloomsbury Sigma books, it’s readable and fairly light in tone. I think it could actually have used some more diagrams: sometimes, Tasker explained something and my brain just couldn’t grab hold because I couldn’t do the imagining she was suggesting. (If you start with “imagine an ellipse”, I’m afraid I fall at that first hurdle, so I’m a bit of an outlier here — but I still think some more diagrams could have clarified the more technical stuff.)
I do also have some issues with terminology, although this isn’t Tasker’s fault so much as an issue with astronomy in general: hot Jupiters and super Earths and so on all start to blur together for me. Once you say “it’s like Jupiter only x and y and z and a and b” then I don’t know why you’re still calling it a Jupiter-like object. Some of the hot Jupiters are pretty close to Jupiter, of course, but… I don’t know, it felt like a meaningless phrase that got in the way of me actually following what sort of planets were being discussed. “A gas giant on a close solar orbit” seems more informative…
Anyway, that’s probably mostly down to personal taste. It’s an informative book with which I have no scientific quibbles.
If you’re expecting something based a bit more on humans and how they evolved, remember it’s Brian Cox and think bigger — it’s more about our place in the universe, our understanding of it, and what we might find out there in the vastness of space. It’s not really about us as a species, I think, but about how we see the world around us. So yeah, more physics, less biology. Which makes sense, given the author, and it’s easier to absorb than his other book I’ve read (Universal). It goes into interesting stuff like the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation, which is right up my street, and it avoids too much jargon or demands that the reader understand math.
That said, it wasn’t amazing, from my point of view — mildly interesting, but not really my thing.
Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, Nick Lane
I read this while I was preparing for one of the final exams of my biology degree, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I found it helpful in revising some of the topics (mostly apoptosis!), but also found that knowledge useful in understanding the book itself. To me, it seemed an incredibly clear and well-written account of the role of mitochondria in life and the origin of life, and I didn’t really find any major holes in it based on what I know. If you’ve read The Vital Question, then a lot of the ideas in it aren’t new — but of course, that makes sense, since The Vital Question is a more recent book by the same author.
And since this is pop science, I should add that you don’t need the biology degree to understand it. It might be slower going and less like pleasure reading if you don’t have a solid background in science, but it should work at that level too.
I do roll my eyes a little bit at the title, which is obviously drumming up excitement by sounding provocative and then like a self-help book, but hey, maybe it’s persuaded someone on the fence to pick it up just through sounding a bit unusual for the section it’s in. It’s worth picking up, definitely.