Tag Archives: science

** Skeleton Keys by Brian Witek

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone will make you think about all the times you just bypassed dusty bones in museums. The author tells their stories, whether it’s competing archeologists bribing miners to steal fossils from others, the reasons why exoskeletons cannot support huge creatures, creatures breathing with their ribs rather than diaphragms, the not-really-awful consequences of corsets, and why bears’ bones don’t just disintegrate during hibernation. He also describes how the very holding of human bones in museum collections is controversial, reminding us that it’s a privilege to be able to observe them, dusty or not.

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*** The Tangled Tree by David Quamen

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life discusses three new ideas in biology: a new domain of creatures, Archaea, the proof that genes can transfer “horizontally” and not just from parent to child, and the realization that our microbiome may be more important than the rest of our bodies. All that puts into serious question the orderly tree of life we all learned in school.

The author spends rather too much time describing various scientists, sometimes with satisfying results (I did not know that Lynn Margulis was once married to Carl Sagan, who from this account was a cad when young) and other times not so much (Carl Woese’s feuds with pretty much everyone). His descriptions of labs and sometimes dangerous lab techniques are always welcome and lively, however. A long book but worth reading.

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** Who We Are And How We Got There by David Reich

Let’s start with what does not work so well in Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past: the author’s repeated insistence that DNA analysis will change every field of inquiry (please show us, don’t tell!), and his decision to include minute details of how his team conducted various analyses he describes in the book.

Apart from that, the stories are fascinating: who invaded, who introduced new technologies, who imposed draconian restrictions on marrying outside the group, can be revealed through DNA analysis, with the main obstacle being the availability of ancient DNA. Indeed, many of the theories (and boy, do geneticists like theories!) seem to be built on very small data sets, suggesting that they will likely be toppled as we find more remains. I was most interested by the idea that humans, even very ancient ones, roamed a lot, so that the ancestors of people living in a given regions routinely came from very far away. This seems to be a very inconvenient truth to racists everywhere, as well as to nationalists. Let’s find and analyze more ancient DNA!

 

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** Champion by Sally M. Walker

Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree is a book with modest aim, pitched towards young readers but highly enjoyable for adults, of the science and politics behind the revival of the American chestnut tree. After a fungus infestation, scientists identified the issue and painstakingly crossed the species with others to create a resistant tree. Inspiring!

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** Fear, Wonder, and Science by Scott Gilbert & Clara Pinto-Correia

Fear, Wonder, and Science in the New Age of Reproductive Biotechnology is an unusual book, bringing together hard science about reproductive technology and the personal heartbreak of needing to be the recipient of such technology, especially when it does not work. Do not be dismayed that the book starts with an explanation of how babies are made: it’s a lot more complex than you think you know (really!), and it illuminates the rest of the discussion. I would have liked the book to be more concise on the personal side, while still highlighting the dismal percentages of success for older women, even today.

 

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*** A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

Written by scientist turned science writer, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes explores our genomes in search of whether redheads will disappear over time (not likely unless our entire species disappears), why Icelanders have strange genes (living on an island, you know), which kind of plague killed Romans, why the Hapsburg took consanguinity to an unhealthy extreme, and whether the Vikings raped as much as they pillaged (surprisingly, no).

The tone is occasionally a little over the top, but I suppose enthusiasm is a desirable attitude when it comes to science.

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** The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum

The author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us has a specific aim: to rehabilitate Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, that choosing a mate for pure beauty (rather than “fitness”), is an essential motor of evolution, alongside the better-known natural selection theory, now amply proven. The bitterness of the scientific debate sometimes shows through the narrative, and does not enhance it.

The author is an ornithologist and shares many examples of  tropical birds that court females with their feathers, constructions, and dances — all of which he explains because females just like the fun stuff.  While the arguments are interesting and plausible, they seem to resist proof and rely on hypotheses. And when he venture into human tastes (and testes), your capacity to believe may be further shaken. Still, it’s good to underscore that natural selection was just one of Darwin’s theory.

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