Tag Archives: science

** 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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** Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Written by a scientist who is also a buddhist, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment is an outsider-friendly discussion of Buddhism, with the author joyously (and encouragingly) sharing his own failures at meditating “properly”. The core idea of the book is that meditation is a powerful way to counter-balance our natural instincts, so whether we are annoyed at someone’s snoring or worried about our own pain, mindfully observing that feeling can give us the time and space to react in a different way than aggression and anxiety. It’s clear that the book cannot replace a good teacher or years of practice, but it is a wonderful glimpse.

 

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*** Scienceblind by Andrew Shtulman

If you don’t already suspect it before reading Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, we humans are often very, very ignorant and wrong about the way things work. The author takes us, chapter by chapter, through physics and biology and shows that, at every age, we fall prey to preconceptions and plain misunderstandings of what we supposedly learned. (He is very kind and gives us examples of confused graduate physics students so we don’t feel so bad!)

He also tries to lay out recommendations for how to bridge the gap and is less successful at that (for one thing, his specialty is psychology, not physics or biology). Still, it seems that STEM courses should spend a little more time contrasting the truth with common preconceptions rather than just solving equations. The problem seems to be the intersection of “common” sense and technical knowledge.

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*** This Is Your Brain On Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe

This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society is not for the faint of heart, as the author muses about hens preferring to eat parasite-infected crickets (because they are slower), the dengue fever virus that enhances its mosquito carrier’s ability to detect the scent of humans, or rat parasites that cause male rats to somehow be more successful with the ladies… After reading of those adventures, you may want to wash your hands more often and avoid anything that looks unsafe, including fellow humans — and indeed animals and humans have developed all kinds of techniques to fight against parasites. The scariest and darkest part of the book is that perhaps these very techniques suggest that it’s the parasites who control us, rather than the other way round. Fascinating.

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