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!
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.
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.
There are some authors who can make me feel enthusiastic about reading about geology — Richard Fortey being the obvious name that jumps to mind. Jan Zalasiewicz is not quite on that level, though I found the book interesting enough; sometimes it drags somewhat, but I think that somewhat comes with the subject. There are parts of a rock’s life cycle that aren’t exactly scintillating drama, if any part of the rock cycle could be called scintillating given the pace it happens at.
Probably not the first book I’d recommend for geology, but useful enough for understanding the rock cycle and the history of the Earth through rocks.
Despite the exciting-sounding title, this is actually a book about the science of how we read. Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I read it and the review I wrote then is one of the reviews that I seem to have lost in the ether, but I do remember finding it generally entertaining, though I wished at times there were more citations so I could go and read more about the things Wolf claims.
One thing I really want to look up is the results of the study into AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and how it affects the acquisition of reading skills. It seems a little eyebrow-raising that there should be specific problems with AAVE and not with, say, the Yorkshire dialect in Britain — maybe that’s for lack of studying it, I don’t know. It just seems a little bit suspect when you consider the way people view users of AAVE as uneducated, and all those other racial stereotypes.
I confess that I wasn’t expecting to love a book that focuses on photosynthesising plants; I don’t have a huge interest in plants, as a general rule, and I picked this up because it was one of the Oxford Landmark Science books. Buuuut this book definitely got me interested in the way plants work, the various types of photosynthesis, etc. It’s written in an engaging style — you can feel that Beerling loves his topic, and it really works.
I find myself recommending this to people now. If you don’t understand how much we rely on the photosynthesising part of the biosphere, well, maybe it’s time you got a wake-up call. And I think this book could get anyone enthused.
I should have reviewed this when I read it, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere. I’m left with only general impressions and the knowledge that I intended to give it a four star rating. That alone should tell you it’s decent pop-science, delving into the genome and trying to give the reader a deeper understanding of it — not just the basic string of AACTGGA or whatever, but more detail. The first chapters are more basic, of course, giving the reader a bit of a background against which to evaluate all the new research.
I recall it being clear and easy to read, and where it went into epigenetics, microRNAs and piRNAs, I was fascinated. Some of this stuff, it only touches on, because it’s complex or not fully researched yet. Still a good read!