What a satisfying, scientific tale. Walter Alvarez of the eponymous "Alvarez Hypothesis," the hypothesis that a large impact caused the mass dinosaurWhat a satisfying, scientific tale. Walter Alvarez of the eponymous "Alvarez Hypothesis," the hypothesis that a large impact caused the mass dinosaur extinction could have written many different types of books about his work. This is a deeply humble book that seems to be equally about How To Do Good Science as it is about the deeply fascinating scientific work that Alvarez has done.
The story is just so freaking cool -- both the human and geologic aspects. How could we possible understand what happened to the planet 65 million years ago? Alvarez, as a postdoc, sets out to Italy looking for evidence of plate tectonics by measuring magnetic drift, as anticipated if a plate shifted rotationally. Instead, he finds that the magnetic data from his region is too poor to pick up such subtle changes and he can only detect magnetic reversals. Then he realizes that the particular region he picked happens to have other clues in the rock bed (forams) that can be used to date magnetic reversal events, which has never been done before. However, forams were living organisms, and in the process of using them for dating, they noticed an abrupt boundary of absence of large forams, consistent with a mass extinction. Each step along the way is so nicely laid out -- not the way the lay public views science: hypothesis, easy test, confirm results, new hypothesis, the end!. But the real way: totally different hypothesis, interesting observation, new hypothesis, accidental discovery, new hypothesis, need to invent a brand new assay, and endless repeats. To do their work they ended up inventing new ways of performing neutron activation analysis, blowing up the conventional geologic belief in uniformism, rather than catastrophic events and discovering potentially periodic impacts on the earth (the downside to an old book -- the 1997 view of the Nemesis star has largely been discredited, but the discrediting was nearly a decade of work for the astronomy community and has led to new interesting hypotheses about the solar system)
Alvarez is deeply humble about his role in all of this, instead highlighting the many multidisciplinary collaborations he was engaged in with his work. That's another great facet to the book, to hear about all of the geologists, astronomers, paleontologists, archeologists and oceanologists involved. He also discusses the false roads they go down (they only discovered extraterrestrial material in the first place because they had a hypothesis that a nearby supernova was responsible for the mass extinction, a theory they nearly published due to bad data) and circles back when the evidence that pointed them one way later gets solved by something else -- like the shocked quartz that suggested an oceanic impact, which were later explained by secondary impact from debris. Finally, in what turns out to be a prescient move, instead of criticizing his main rival, who believed in a volcanic theory of extinction, Alvarez confirms that there is evidence to support the involvement of volcanic activity at the Declan traps in the extinction event, which would not become part of the mainstream wisdom until 18 years after the book was published.
There are only two major downsides to this book: one is the first 33 pages of front matter about the story as we know it and how science works is relatively dry -- Alvarez should have jumped in with his personal story and then circled back. The second is that 19 years have passed since publication and new discoveries have been made -- read with google handy!...more
This is Mary Roach at her best, with all of her classic points: a one-word, evocative, title a subject matter dancing just on the edge of the taboo liThis is Mary Roach at her best, with all of her classic points: a one-word, evocative, title a subject matter dancing just on the edge of the taboo line, dealt with in one part investigative journalism, one part completely unsquashable curiosity and one part a mix of stream-of-consciousness and "I just can't help but share" anecdotes.
Those who disliked Roach's previous works will hate Gulp, and those who liked her previous works will love it. The dislike largely stems from her highly present narration, and that is out in full force here. Doctors that she has known with hilariously apropos names, completely tangential stuff she found while doing research, boilerplate responses from Oster regarding an e-mail inquiry about their blenders being used for fecal transplate and much, much more abound in the frequent footnotes (average density seems to be about 1.5 footnotes/page.) New sections are usually introduced with commentary about what made Roach reach out to this particular person and how she feels on meeting them. The narration in fact is so present in Gulp, even compared to her previous works, that honestly, it skirts memoir territory. I consider that a win, your mileage may vary, as they say.
Meanwhile, Roach again makes the lowest of lowbrow topics palatable (sorry -- couldn't resist!) if not downright classy. For a book with an entire chapter on flatulence, it's entertaining, funny and interesting even to those of us who wouldn't dream of laughing at a fart joke. You didn't know that you wanted to know why some animals eat their own feces, the history of gastrocutaneous fistulas, the science of the chemical composition of farts, or what human tasters think of cat food and why, but Roach's curiosity is contagious and she can make any subject matter fascinating. ...more
I've read most of this book several times in the three weeks since I started my new role as a metabolism and genetics fellow. In the weeks leading up tI've read most of this book several times in the three weeks since I started my new role as a metabolism and genetics fellow. In the weeks leading up to starting fellowship, I read this book once and was quite enchanted with how succinct and well-laid out it was. Once I started seeing patients; however, this book just doesn't cut it. It is much more a biochemical text with a few clinical pearls. Many relevant clinical details are completely absent. To be fair, many relevant biochemical details are also completely absent (want to know why glycine is high in MMA and PA? This book won't tell you.) Information about any given disease is scattered through many chapters. Sorting the book by organ system involvement makes some sense, but then diseases that are biochemically related, such as mitochondrial diseases, are splayed throughout. Also, to be done that way, the book should commit -- I would expect a list of diseases that can cause epilepsy or liver failure, etc. So why three stars? Because I haven't found a better alternative, especially not for the price. My coworkers make fun of me, because I spend a lot of time with MMBID up in my browser, at least one review article printed out on my lab, a basic biochemistry textbook on one desk, handdrawn diagrams up on my whiteboard and this book on my other desk. As long as it's part of that multi-reference puzzle, it deserves three stars. That being said, I would love to have one go-to reference....more
Dr. Gawande's reputation proceeded him, meaning that much of the medical community had already read the NEJM article on the same topic, considered howDr. Gawande's reputation proceeded him, meaning that much of the medical community had already read the NEJM article on the same topic, considered how it applied to subfields of medicine, personal practices, etc. and the reforms espoused had largely been adopted, at least by the American medical community by the time of publication.
Nonetheless, Dr. Gawande's journey to discover why checklists matter, the subtle ways in which they matter and the fields that have instituted them was an interesting, if slightly shallow read....more
Remember your favorite chemistry teacher? The one who always anthropormorphized chemical compounds and added drama and flavor to their lectures? ThisRemember your favorite chemistry teacher? The one who always anthropormorphized chemical compounds and added drama and flavor to their lectures? This book is a lot like that.
Okay, fine, chemistry is a substantial part of my livelihood, so maybe I have more fond chemistry-based memories than then average person. Nonetheless, The Disappearing Spoon should be as enticing to those who never took a science class outside of distribution requirements as well as those of us whose favorite class was organic chemistry.
To be honest, I was pretty nervous about this book; as a biochemist, it makes me a little uncomfortable to admit that there's anything interesting outside of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen (and a touch of phosphorus and sulfur.) But Kean's writing is the definition of compulsively readable.
Drama is brought by the often argumentative, usually eccentric and always genius scientists who founded the principals of modern chemistry. In addition, each chapter is riddled with historical anecdotes staring a particular element or two. But the real richness of the book comes from Kean's ease with the science itself, describing valence shells, chemical bonds, radioactivity, fusion and fission in accurate, accessible and extremely lively ways....more
This was the year of Mary Roach for me: I had always been hesitant about her books - Bonk seemed to flippant, Stiff irreverant and she was altogetherThis was the year of Mary Roach for me: I had always been hesitant about her books - Bonk seemed to flippant, Stiff irreverant and she was altogether too popular - always a sign that a pop science author doesn't know what she or he is talking about.
So I picked up Packing for Mars because one of my friends was insistent that Mary Roach was actually a great author, and by the title it seemed the least likely to offend, and, to be perfectly honest, there needs to be a new law of physics to describe the force that over time pulls me in to any book on astronomy.
To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. Roach is clearly a scientific writer, rather than a scientist, which is a niche in need of more authors: she writes with a fluidity that is lacking in some popular science books written by scientists, but more than that, she functions in this odd way as an audience surrogate - bringing with her the curiosity (sometimes scatological) of her readers and commenting along the way about her anticipation for meetings, her rationale for her questions and a description of how she finds out the information that she shares. It is a unique authorial voice and one that I enjoyed thoroughly. The content itself is a complete exploration into the NASA space program - short on hoopla and long on (sometimes scatological) details. Roach is complete, explaining, for instance, every type of food tried, the nutritional assessments, texture and composition of astronaut food, followed up by how it is actually eaten, including concerns about the ability to swallow in space, and which were substantiated and which were not.
Yes, she is a little long on the scatology, but I think that bothers me more than it does the average reader. And while there is a heavy dose of humor, it is mostly witty and tongue-in-cheek, more than gross-out humor. I've been converted: Long live Mary Roach!...more
Alex, if not Irene Pepperberg, is a household name. I vaguely remember in middle school watching the famous Alex videos and having all of my ideas aboAlex, if not Irene Pepperberg, is a household name. I vaguely remember in middle school watching the famous Alex videos and having all of my ideas about animal intelligence challenged. My dad eagerly tells of his experience meeting Irene Pepperberg (I'm sure I'll get an e-mail from him reminding me that he knows her personally after I publish this review), so they're both definitely household names in my life. Therefore, there is little attempt to familiarize the reader with the story of Alex or why he is important and the attempt that is made (a painfully long intro/eulogy) is unnecessary.
I was expecting the book to largely focus on the science of working with Alex and how Dr. Pepperberg formulated the work as she had and what she has concluded. Instead, Dr. Pepperberg makes the decision to really write a memoir, which turns out to be a fascinating look at how much being a scientist requires overcoming opposition and how favored one is by lucky coincidences. Most interesting, to me, at least, is Pepperberg's explorations of the setbacks she faces, especially as a female scientist, and the unconventional methods she turns to to get funding and faculty support. It is really very telling about the state of American science that as famous of a scientist as Pepperberg is, she still reverts to private funding and adjunct faculty positions. ...more
A fascinating historical and medical perspective on fatal familial insomnia and prion disorders in general, highlighting historical and modern controvA fascinating historical and medical perspective on fatal familial insomnia and prion disorders in general, highlighting historical and modern controversies on these fascinating diseases. Max's strength lies in characterization and the placement of the events occurring in one family with FFI within a historical context. His prose is rich and readable. The subject matter is unspeakably sad, but Max handles a book about rapid neurodegeneration with ease, focusing on the excitement of discovery, the hopes of family and the scientific and medical curiosity evoked by the strange mysteries of prion disorders.
The major flaw is that by attempting to focus on prion disorders in general, what Max covers in breadth often lacks in depth. The discussion of kuru seems to focus on one of the main researcher's pedophilia to a large extent, which seems to occur in place of a real examination of the husband and wife team that did the anthropological work to discover the true origins of the disease. It would be both more salient and more interesting to focus instead on the controversies of cannibalism and how that discovery was made. In addition, Max remarks several times on the similarity between scrapie and FFI to the already discovered hereditary prion disorders CJD and GSS, without ever really discussing the discovery of those conditions. Since one of the stated goals of the book is to bring about public awareness and support for research to inherited prion disorders, more exploration of these two diseases would have added a lot, in addition to enriching the history of the field. ...more
I read this immediately after Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void - high on a newly discovered favorite author. I think ReadingI read this immediately after Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void - high on a newly discovered favorite author. I think Reading the two quite so adjacently resulted in a less favorable view of Stiff - there is an almost completely replicated chapter between the two discussing the use of cadavers to simulate forces on an astronaut's body during spaceflight, and the voice and humor is nearly identical between the two books.
That being said, Stiff was still quite good, perhaps objectively the superior book as Roach covers a very broad range of subjects. She again excels at covering all angles of a subject. For instance, when covering the history of medical cadavers, she comments on the setup of modern anatomy classes, ceremonies respecting cadaver donors, the history of graverobbing for the purpose of providing anatomic cadavers, the history surrounding specific graverobbers as well as specific professors using their services as well as the theories about human anatomy during each period and how these changed over time using knowledge learned through dissection....more
Joseph Priestley discovered carbon dioxide, breathable air, invented carbonated water, was a best friend of Benjamin Franklin and instrumental in theJoseph Priestley discovered carbon dioxide, breathable air, invented carbonated water, was a best friend of Benjamin Franklin and instrumental in the founding of the Unitarian movement. Nonetheless, despite living in Benjamin-Franklin-opolis (AKA Philadelphia), I had never heard of him.
Johnson's biography is fascinating - a true examination of the life, beliefs, political allegations, science and religion of Priestley. In addition, there is another book nestled above the level of the biography: a book primarily about the process of science. Johnson explores how the process of science has evolved since Priestley's time, the factors that were instrumental in setting Priestley up for success, the model of the paradigm and the development of ecosystems as a model of thought. ...more
Dr. Zuk is first and foremost a terrific parasitologist. The portions of the book that Zuk spends discussing her own Ph.D. thesis and her own researchDr. Zuk is first and foremost a terrific parasitologist. The portions of the book that Zuk spends discussing her own Ph.D. thesis and her own research, especially regarding sexual selection. The central portion of the book from about page 80 to page 180 is fascinating & probably should have been released as a stand-alone book -- it is focused, it flows and the topic is fascinating (these are the chapters on sexual selection, infection differences between the sexes and sexually transmitted diseases.)
The first 80 pages drag, and are covered both more interestingly and in more detail in hundreds of other popular science books. Also, the topics in these chapters (heterozygote advantage, hygeine hypothesis) have little to do with Zuk's central themes. Theis portion of the book also is infested with what Zuk seems to think are wry little asides, which grate terribly. The concluding paragraphs are interesting, but lack the compulsive readable of the earlier chapters....more