Written by a biology professor, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is divided between the non-human world, where cannibalism is common and marvelously varied, and the human world, where we, as usual, have complicated the practice with all kinds of cultural and religious practices and taboos. I much enjoyed the first half, which leaps deftly from sharks eating their siblings inside their mothers’ oviducts to amphibians that consume the mothers’ oviduct lining using their special spoon-shaped teeth (yikes). It took me a while to appreciate the human stories, but the author investigates the Donner party (and gives us a lovely hand drawing of a beautiful Ponderosa pine supposed to be the tree where George Donner lived his last days), the fearsome original fairy tales in which ogres ate many young children (whitewashed by Disney), gruesome stories of the siege of Leningrad (do not use your imagination), and his memorable adventures eating placenta (does not taste like chicken).
Great book. Try not to read it in public, at least if you are reading a hard copy!
Be patient if you decide to pick up The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids–and the Kids We Have. It starts slowly, describing standard pregnancy genetic testing techniques that seem mundane — but it ratchets up to much more technically complex and ethically challenging techniques, from preimplantation genetic diagnosis to systematically screening parents for potentially devastating genes. The author does not shy away from discussing how genetic testing is linked to abortions or how to imagine a world in which particular disabilities have become very rare. While definitely not a book to recommend to a pregnant woman, it’s a great way to think about the choices to make as a prospective parent and as a society.
The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time talks about the work that Peter and Rosemary Grant have been doing for twenty years in the Galapagos islands, studying the so-called Darwin finches. (Let’s just say that Darwin did a poor job of studying them, including neglecting to properly tag the origin of the ones he shot! They should be called the Grant finches.)
I thought that the book would focus on the studies they conducted, and the ascetic life on Daphne Major, which is a caldera with steep walls, no shade, and no permanent source of water, and I was initially disappointed that the author instead chose to use the scientists’ stories as interludes in a more ambitious discussion of evolution, but the approach is an educational success. Not only can we follow the living proof of Darwin’s theories, but also appreciate how quickly evolution can work, in a single very rainy or very dry season for example, and how very tiny differences (a single millimeter of a bird’s beak) can separate survivors from the others — showing the importance of proper analytical techniques.
It’s a little scary to think of the consequences on pesticide or antibiotic use, but think we must, and the author helps with that, too. Perhaps the best book about evolution I have read.
The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation does talk about the US around the time that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, and it does talk about people who read the book (and in some cases wrote about it). But it’s not exactly the case that Darwin’s theory ignited the nation, or even the small circle of Boston intellectuals portrayed in this book. If you are curious about pre-Civil War intellectual discourse in America, this is the book for you. Don’t expect much science out of it.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars is supposed to be an uplifting book about women scientists. And indeed, it presents compelling portraits of women who, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, analyzed and organized hundreds of thousands of photographic plates, captured by the male scientists, and discovered many stars while creating a logical classification of stars. How exciting (for someone who cares about astronomy; I think I’m sitting that one out).
Still, these women were paid peanuts and had the hardest time getting formal, funded jobs and university titles, and living off the generosity of the observatory patriarch, who seemed to be unusually open-minded but why did he not see that it was wrong to pay them 40% less than the men? It seems that the book should make a bigger deal of the basic inequity underlying the entire adventure..
The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution is a massive tome written by a historian who believes, convincingly, that the scientific revolution was the defining event in history. It is not an easy book to read: if you expect fast-moving stories of hero scientists, go elsewhere. Indeed, the author goes on for dozens of pages on whether the word revolution is indeed appropriate for the events of the 16th through the 18th century, a discussion that is probably interesting for specialists, but not so much for the general public.
That said, the book does a great job of demonstrating how changing the way we looked at the world changed the way we thought about knowledge itself, from something we know to something we are forever seeking. I would quibble with some of the author’s interpretation of how differences between English and French shaped the scientific discourse but his knowledge is encyclopedic.
Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe is a classic astronaut story from wide-eyed kid watching of a certain generation watching the Apollo moon landing to fixing the Hubble telescope, tethered on the space shuttle whizzing by the earth. The author is a friendly and communicative nerd who seems to love everything and everyone and is not shy about sharing his struggles with academics, vision training, or survival training. That and his love and awe of space make the book. By the end, his always-positive attitude wore thin for me — but what a story!