Tag: science

Review – The Science of Sin

Posted January 19, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Review – The Science of Sin

The Science of Sin: Why we do the things we know we shouldn't

by Jack Lewis

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 304
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

It can often seem that we are utterly surrounded by temptation, from the ease of online shopping and the stream of targeted advertising encouraging us to greedily acquire yet more stuff, to the coffee, cake and fast-food shops that line our streets, beckoning us in to over-indulge on all the wrong things. It can feel like a constant battle to stay away from the temptations we know we shouldn't give in to. Where exactly do these urges come from? If we know we shouldn't do something, for the sake of our health, our pockets or our reputation, why is it often so very hard to do the right thing? Anyone who has ever wondered why they never seem to be able to stick to their diet, anyone to whom the world seems more vain and self-obsessed than ever, anyone who can't understand why love-cheats pursue their extra-marital affairs, anyone who struggles to resist the lure of the comfy sofa, or anyone who makes themselves bitter through endless comparison with other people - this book is for you.

The Science of Sin brings together the latest findings from neuroscience research to shed light on the universally fascinating subject of temptation - where it comes from, how to resist it and why we all tend to succumb from time to time. With each chapter inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, neurobiologist Jack Lewis illuminates the neural battles between temptation and restraint that take place within our brains, suggesting strategies to help us better manage our most troublesome impulses with the explicit goal of improving our health, our happiness and our productivity - helping us to say `no!' more often, especially when it really counts.

The Science of Sin takes on a lot of religious baggage, for all that Jack Lewis, its author, says that he’s an atheist. To some extent that’s inevitable given his background, and his choice to shape the book around the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins, looking for neurological and evolutionary explanations for the origins of each — both their pitfalls and their utility.

The problem is that it inevitably becomes very moralising. He does try to point out when certain neurological things might not be someone’s choice, but he seems to have more sympathy for paedophiles than for fat people, and is very certain that being fat is almost totally a choice people make (when in fact there are many contributing causes, including sheer poverty, where good food choices are not always available), and a moral one that impacts badly on society and on everyone around them. Fatness is also unequivocally bad for you, in Lewis’ view, where the real picture is more mixed (fat people, for instance, have lower 30-day mortality from bacterial pneumonia and have better survival rates and reduced immune depletion when living with HIV) and thinness is no guarantor of health of any kind.

(Important note: this is not something I’m interested in debating in the comments on this blog. I’ve studied some of the science of nutrition in relation to immunity as part of my MSc, but you’re best off heading to the literature with an open mind and a careful eye for bias — your own and that of the papers you find.)

In almost every chapter, he finds a way to reference narcissism, blame fat people, suggest fat people are narcissistic, and so on. And again, he treats these as moral issues, failures that people should rectify.

In some cases, he isn’t wrong, but he’s replacing religious moralising about it with a kind of secular moralising about it that sits badly with any effort to be objective. Combine that with his reliance on scans like fMRI to tell us about what’s going on in someone’s brain, and a lot of his conclusions are questionable: you can get apparently significant results from the brain of a dead salmon, with fMRI, an issue that he very briefly references before waving it away and saying that fMRI is the tool we have, so he’s going to use it.

For me, there was a kind of entertainment value in watching him build up his argument, but I was aware of the one-sided nature of his search for appropriate sources, and not appreciative of his moralising.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Tickets for the Ark

Posted January 7, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Tickets for the Ark

Tickets for the Ark: From Wasps to Whales - How Do We Choose What to Save?

by Rebecca Nesbit

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 256
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Our planet hasn't seen the current rate of extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and global conservation efforts are failing to halt this. As a society, we face choices which will determine the fate of Earth's estimated 8.7 million species, including humans. As wildlife declines, conservation needs to make trade-offs. But what should we conserve and why?

Are we wrong to love bees and hate wasps? Are native species more valuable than newcomers (aka invasives)? Should some animals be culled to protect others, and what do we want the 'natural world' to look like? There are many surprising answers in Rebecca Nesbit's lively, stimulating book, which sows the seeds of a debate we urgently need to have.

Rebecca Nesbit’s Tickets for the Ark attempts to be somewhat nuanced about the topic of conservation, and to dig into why we want to save the creatures we want to save — and why we might want to save other animals instead. It’s not always obvious that we might want to save parasites, but we know little about some parasites, and little about what advantages they might offer taken as part of a whole ecosystem. Nesbit also talks about what we define as “wild” vs “domesticated”, how our responsibilities differ between the two, and how much responsibility we might want to or need to take for animals in rewilding projects.

That’s just a taster of the various dilemmas she serves up, but hopefully it gives an idea of the gist of the book. I appreciate that she recognises the potential role of animals that people don’t like — wasps, including parasitic wasps, and other ectoparasites like lice — and the issue that it’s very difficult to decide what counts as a “native” plant. All cut-offs are artificial, and do we really want to roll back time? Maybe we need a new normal?

None of it came as a surprise to me, since it’s a topic I’ve thought about a fair bit, but it’s an attempt at nuance in a world that sometimes lacks it, and I appreciated that. It was a slower read than I expected, but full of helpful context that can get a layperson properly interested and involved in the hypotheticals.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Dragons’ Teeth and Thunderstones

Posted January 6, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Dragons’ Teeth and Thunderstones

Dragons' Teeth and Thunderstones: The Quest for the Meaning of Fossils

by Ken McNamara

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 288
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

For at least half a million years, people have been doing some very strange things with fossils. Long before a few seventeenth-century minds started to decipher their true, organic nature, fossils had been eaten, dropped in goblets of wine, buried with the dead, and adorned bodies. What triggered such curious behavior was the belief that some fossils could cure illness, protect against being poisoned, ease the passage into the afterlife, ward off evil spirits, and even kill those who were just plain annoying. But above all, to our early prehistoric ancestors, fossils were the very stuff of artistic inspiration.

Drawing on archaeology, mythology, and folklore, Ken McNamara takes us on a journey through prehistory with these curious stones, and he explores humankind's unending quest for the meaning of fossils.

Ken McNamara’s Dragons’ Teeth and Thunderstones is basically a history of how people have related to and understood fossils, how they’ve used them and appreciated them, and the things we’ve believed about them. He discusses a lot of different superstitions, and bits of evidence about how ancient peoples thought about fossils; I’m not always convinced, particularly about the one where the dead five-armed starfish-like creature looks like a human, especially with a hole between its legs. Seems like wishful thinking to me.

In the end it’s an interesting survey, best when McNamara keeps his theories out of it (I’m not sure how wide the agreement is about things like “obviously that was viewed as a human”, but it doesn’t convince me anyway). It has some illustrations so you can see what he’s referring to, though they’re in black and white, so can be a little muddy.

Adrienne Mayor’s books might also be interesting to people who are tantalised by these ideas, particularly The First Fossil Hunters. McNamara spends a lot of time looking a bit further back in the past, beyond the point where we can refer to literature with our questions.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Unwell Women

Posted December 20, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Review – Unwell Women

Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World

by Elinor Cleghorn

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 512
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Medicine carries the burden of its own troubling history. Over centuries, women's bodies have been demonised and demeaned until we feared them, felt ashamed of them, were humiliated by them. But as doctors, researchers, campaigners and most of all as patients, women have continuously challenged medical orthodoxy. Medicine's history has always been, and is still being, rewritten by women's resistance, strength and incredible courage.

In this ground-breaking history Elinor Cleghorn unpacks the roots of the perpetual misunderstanding, mystification and misdiagnosis of women's bodies, illness and pain. From the 'wandering womb' of ancient Greece to today's shifting understanding of hormones, menstruation and menopause, Unwell Women is the revolutionary story of women who have suffered, challenged and rewritten medical misogyny. Drawing on Elinor's own experience as an unwell woman, this is a powerful and timely exposé of the medical world and woman's place within it.

The health of female-bodied people has long been a thorny problem. Those in charge of medicine and health have so often been men, and the “default” or “correct” body has been thought to be male. I’m not just talking about in Victorian times or something — in modern times, medication has often only been tested on men, because women are inherently too variable and would throw off the results. (This makes a certain sense when you think about good experimental design, until you remember that the medication is supposed to work for women too, and will be given to them without further testing, so we really should actually know about the effects of the hormone cycle on it.)

Elinor Cleghorn’s book aims to discuss that history, to discuss the whys and wherefores and the impacts on women, not just now, but in the past, and not as something that’s necessarily getting better, but as something which still affects women now — including herself. It’s not just that women’s bodies are considered strange and different, but the experiences of female-bodied people about their own bodies haven’t been believed, and they haven’t been trusted to have any insight or understanding.

Obviously this book is a hard read in that way, chronicling a lot of mishaps and a lot of misogyny, some of it completely institutionalised. But it’s a useful one, if you want to take a good hard stare at it. None of it was too surprising for me, but that’s because I’ve gone out of my way to know this kind of thing; I know some folks for whom it would be revelatory. It’s certainly one place to start in understanding why the health of female-bodied people hasn’t been prioritised, and why that still affects people living now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Rebel Cell

Posted December 16, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Rebel Cell

Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution and the Science of Life

by Kay Arney

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 390
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Cancer has always been with us. It killed our hominid ancestors, the mammals they evolved from and the dinosaurs that trampled the ground before that. Tumours grow in pets, livestock and wild animals. Even tiny jelly-like Hydra, creatures that are little more than a tube full of water, can get cancer.

Paradoxically, many of us think of cancer as a contemporary killer, a disease of our own making caused by our modern lifestyles. But that's not true. Although it might be rare in many species, cancer is the enemy lurking within almost every living creature. Why? Because cancer is a bug in the system of life. We get cancer because we can't not get it. Cancer starts when cells revolt, throwing off their molecular shackles, and growing and dividing out of control in a shambolic mockery of normal life. This is why we can't avoid cancer: because the very genes that drive it are essential for life itself.

The revolution has raged, on and off, for millions of years. But it was only in the twentieth century that doctors and scientists made any significant progress in understanding and treating cancer, and it's only in the past few decades that we've finally begun to kick the mob's malignant arse. Now the game is changing. Scientists have infiltrated cancer's cellular rebellion and are finally learning its secrets. Geneticist and science writer Kat Arney takes the reader back to the dawn of life on planet earth right up to the present day to get to the heart of what cancer really is and how by better understanding it we might one day overcome it.

Cancer is a fascinating topic, but always a bit scary for me too: it’s a fine balance. Kat Arney’s Rebel Cell walks that line pretty well: she delves into a lot of very fascinating aspects of cancer, with one particular focus that I very much appreciated. Namely, that cancer is basically a microcosm of evolution, in a very similar way to microbes: with a short generation time, it can quickly respond to selective pressures and find ways around treatments.

That’s the terrifying part: it may be that some of our cancer treatments are barking way up the wrong tree, creating resistant cancers that have no known treatment. Arney also criticises the trend of super-individualised cancer treatment plans via genetic testing, pointing to the heterogeneity of cells in a cancer. Cancer isn’t any one thing, it’s a population of rapidly expanding cells which have lost a lot of the brakes that stop them mutating further and developing harmful quirks.

It’s not all gloom, because she does also note a few different options that might be worthwhile: treating cancer as a chronic disease and managing it carefully, allowing it to grow and shrink over time, without expecting to eradicate it — or using cocktails of drugs to hit multiple targets at once, or varying treatments when progress slows to try a new target.

There’s also some really fascinating stuff about contagious cancers (more common than you’d think), what looks quite like sexual reproduction between cancer cells, etc. It’s not a super quick read, but I was riveted.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Golden Mole

Posted December 14, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Golden Mole

The Golden Mole And Other Vanishing Treasure

by Katherine Rundell

Genres: Science
Pages: 208
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

In The Golden Mole, Katherine Rundell takes us on a globe-spanning tour of the world's strangest and most awe-inspiring animals, including pangolins, wombats, lemurs and seahorses.

But each of these animals is endangered. And so, this most passionately persuasive and sharply funny book is also an urgent, inspiring clarion call: to treasure and act - to save nature's vanishing wonders, before it is too late.

Katherine Rundell’s The Golden Mole gives us snapshot discussions of various rare creatures, often ones we don’t know much about, and which we’re in danger of losing due to the human impact on the world (climate change, habitat loss, hunting, etc). Each chapter is illustrated at the start with one image of the animal discussed, and takes up just a few pages — it’s a very lightweight taster session about the animals, rather than anything in depth.

Her anecdotes are often charming, and her enthusiasm for the animals is clear. In the end, I found it more tantalising than anything, as I love to read in-depth about all kinds of things, and no sooner would I get interested than the chapter would be over. Still, there are some fascinating mental images (I like the queue of hermit crabs holding claws, in size order, ready to climb into each others’ shells — though I think I knew about that already) and anecdotes, which mostly seem true enough when I check up on the sources.

In the end, it’s fun but very light. If you already know a lot about conservation and endangered animals, then perhaps it’s just a bit too frothy — but if you’re looking for some light reading with some curious “did you know” facts to share, it’d work. (Did you know that someone trained a capybara as a “guide dog”?)

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark

Posted December 11, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark

Dragon's Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine

by Toni Mount

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 303
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Calling to mind a time when butchers and executioners knew more about anatomy than university-trained physicians, the phrase ‘Medieval Medicine’ conjures up horrors for us with our modern ideas on hygiene, instant pain relief and effective treatments. Although no one could allay the dread of plague, the medical profession provided cosmetic procedures, women’s sanitary products, dietary advice and horoscopes predicting the sex of unborn babies or the best day to begin a journey.

Surgeons performed life-saving procedures, sometimes using anaesthetics, with post-operative antibiotic and antiseptic treatments to reduce the chances of infection. They knew a few tricks to lessen the scarring, too. Yet alongside such expertise, some still believed that unicorns, dragons and elephants supplied vital medical ingredients and the caladrius bird could diagnose recovery or death. This is the weird, wonderful and occasionally beneficial world of medieval medicine.

In her new book, popular historian Toni Mount guides the reader through this labyrinth of strange ideas and such unlikely remedies as leeches, meadowsweet, roasted cat and red bed curtains – some of which modern medicine is now coming to value – but without the nasty smells or any threat to personal wellbeing and safety.

This book by Toni Mount ends up being kind of a survey of what medieval medicine was like, discussing the principles underlying it, and the problems facing it; the kind of diseases, the kind of tools available, and the people who practised it. As such, it’s a bit broad-ranging, especially since “the medieval period” isn’t really one single monolithic block of time.

It works as a kind of survey, touching on what was believed about medicine, and discussing the things that actually worked. It doesn’t really go into the depth I’d like about that kind of thing, and ends up with a rushed kind of “and another thing” and “oh by the way” tone.

Still, an interesting enough read for what it is.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Overkill: When Modern Medicine Goes Too Far

Posted December 8, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Overkill: When Modern Medicine Goes Too Far

Overkill: When Modern Medicine Goes Too Far

by Paul Offit

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 286
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

An acclaimed medical expert and patient advocate offers an eye-opening look at many common and widely used medical interventions that have been shown to be far more harmful than helpful. Yet, surprisingly, despite clear evidence to the contrary, most doctors continue to recommend them.

Modern medicine has significantly advanced in the last few decades as more informed practices, thorough research, and incredible breakthroughs have made it possible to successfully treat and even eradicate many serious ailments. Illnesses that once were a death sentence, such as HIV and certain forms of cancer, can now be managed, allowing those affected to live longer, healthier lives. Because of these advances, we now live 30 years longer than we did 100 years ago.

But while we have learned much in the preceding decades that has changed our outlook and practices, we still rely on medical interventions that are vastly out of date and can adversely affect our health. We all know that finishing the course of antibiotics prevents the recurrence of illness, that sunscreens block harmful UV rays that cause skin cancer, and that all cancer-screening programs save lives. But do scientific studies really back this up?

In this game-changing book, Dr. Paul A. Offit debunks fifteen common medical interventions that have long been considered gospel despite mounting evidence of their adverse effects, from vitamins, sunscreen, fever-reducing medicines, and eyedrops for pink eye to more serious procedures like heart stents and knee surgery. Analyzing how these practices came to be, the biology of what makes them so ineffective and harmful, and the medical culture that continues to promote them, Overkill informs patients to help them advocate for their health. By educating ourselves, we can ask better questions about some of the drugs and surgeries that are all too readily available--and all too heavily promoted.

I really enjoyed Paul Offit’s Overkill — if you can talk about enjoyment when it’s clear that our medical and public health bodies are getting a lot of things wrong because it’s hard to go back on what you once thought would help people. Offit tells us that well-established procedures like placing a stent in an artery to help relieve a blockage don’t offer any benefit over medication, that we don’t need to finish a course of antibiotics (and in fact that doing so will add to incidental resistance), that there’s virtually no vitamin D deficiency, and that knee replacement surgery rarely offers benefits better than simple physical therapy and lifestyle changes.

He doesn’t just tell us, though. He quotes the studies and gives us the tools to look at the data for ourselves. I haven’t had time yet to fully explore the stuff he quotes and references, and so for that one reason, I’d leave an asterisk here and say that I’m not vouching for it, and people should go look at this stuff and read it for themselves. However, it fits with my existing knowledge, and it’s important to read him attentively. When it comes to antibiotics, for example, he doesn’t say to just stop it when you feel like it (which would be bad), but rather that we need new time limits that aren’t quite so arbitrary and correspond with when people feel better (and therefore when the bacteria are dead or dying and probably getting under the control of the immune system as well).

Five-day and seven-day courses aren’t magic numbers, they’re just the number of fingers on one hand and the number of days in a week, respectively: they’re handy figures for us, but they’re not necessarily medically backed. And indeed, generally you need just three days of antibiotics for a urinary tract infection, for example. (I think in the UK we may be moving in that direction?)

Most importantly of all, he tells us to go look for this information ourselves, right in the introduction to the book. That’s rarely said by someone who just wants you to believe them and let them do the work. But, if you’re a layperson reading this, he definitely provides some background and a direction to go in.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Around the World in 80 Trees

Posted November 29, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Around the World in 80 Trees

Around the World in 80 Trees

by Jonathan Drori, Lucille Clerc

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 240
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

In Around the World in 80 Trees, Jonathan Drori uses plant science to illuminate how trees play a role in every part of human life, from the romantic to the regrettable. From the trees of Britain, to India's sacred banyan tree, they offer us sanctuary and inspiration - not to mention the raw materials for everything from aspirin to maple syrup.

Stops on the trip include the lime trees of Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard, which intoxicate amorous Germans and hungry bees alike, the swankiest streets in nineteenth-century London, which were paved with Australian eucalyptus wood, and the redwood forests of California, where the secret to the trees' soaring heights can be found in the properties of the tiniest drops of water.

Each of these strange and true tales -- populated by self-mummifying monks, tree-climbing goats and ever-so-slightly radioactive nuts -- is illustrated by Lucille Clerc, taking the reader on a journey that is as informative as it is beautiful. The book combines history, science and a wealth of quirky detail - there should be surprises for everyone.

Like Around the World in 80 Plants, this is beautifully illustrated by Lucille Clerc, in much the same style: sometimes the images show details of the trees, sometimes a more zoomed out look, and sometimes the pictures include images that illustrate the text directly to show how the trees are used or handled.

If anything, the text seemed livelier in this book than in the other — like, perhaps, the author is just a bit more enthusiastic about trees than general plants. I certainly flew through the book, and found a couple of new-to-me facts that I was eager to tell other people. (Like the stuff about avocado trees!)

If there’s a plant-lover in your life, it’d make a wonderful gift, and there’s also plenty of titbits to pique the interest of anyone who likes this sort of history-through-a-specific-type-of-object (like myself), or just enjoys learning about all kinds of things (also me).

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Around the World in 80 Plants

Posted November 24, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Around the World in 80 Plants

Around the World in 80 Plants

by Jonathan Drori, Lucille Clerc

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 216
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

Jonathan Drori takes a trip across the globe, bringing to life the science of plants by revealing how their worlds are intricately entwined with our own history, culture and folklore. From the seemingly familiar tomato and dandelion to the eerie mandrake and Spanish "moss" of Louisiana, each of these stories is full of surprises. Some have a troubling past, while others have ignited human creativity or enabled whole civilizations to flourish. With a colorful cast of characters all brought to life by illustrator Lucille Clerc, this is a botanical journey of beauty and brilliance.

The first thing to know is that this book is beautifully illustrated by Lucille Clerc, full colour, at least one full-page image per plant. Sometimes these images show details of the plants, and sometimes they include aspects of the accompanying text explanation.

Jonathan Drori’s discussion of each plant is often brief, and the order is not necessarily in order of the origin of a given plant, but rather a place where they might be encountered now, along with the story of how they got there. The stories vary by plant, often including the human history of how we’ve used the plant, and what the plant has done for us.

I found it fascinating, and I’m definitely passing this on to the plant lover in my life; I think he’ll enjoy it even more.

Rating: 5/5

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