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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures tells the story of a dream, that to bring back to life the wooly mammoth. The author chooses to tell the story in dramatic manner, with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter and emotional depictions of the various scientists. It feels rather overdone. That said, the science is thrilling, even if the rationale for resurrecting the woolly mammoth is obscure, at best, and the story is certainly lively.
South Pole Station has everything a great novel may want: an exotic venue in a hostile environment, a cast of misfits, and plenty of political intrigue, both local and global. And yet it never came together for me. Not that I did not enjoy the absurdity of the selection and training process (chillingly conducted by a military contractor), the war between the old cook and the new cook in which cookbooks mysteriously disappear, or the solidarity between national bases once the US base runs afoul of its budget and politics — but the heroine’s back story, whether her family’s attachment to explorers’ stories or her brother’s suicide, seemed forced and irrelevant rather than providing a unifying theme.