I haven't read much Gould, and have recently been trying to rectify this. I read bits and pieces of this, and I downloaded some other essays. I likedI haven't read much Gould, and have recently been trying to rectify this. I read bits and pieces of this, and I downloaded some other essays. I liked the downloaded stuff better.
Gould is so brilliant writing about hard sciences. His essay "The Age of Bacteria" (not in this collection) was one of the most interesting things I've read in the past year. But when he moves into softer stuff, like, I dunno, culture and human knowledge - and a lot of this tends in that direction - he loses me a little. He's a genius, but I honestly couldn't tell you what the title essay was about....more
I'll never end up reading this whole book, because I don't own it and I'm not interested enough to buy it. But I read about a third of my mother's copI'll never end up reading this whole book, because I don't own it and I'm not interested enough to buy it. But I read about a third of my mother's copy while visiting, and the subject matter is very interesting. It's about prion diseases - the most famous of which is mad cow, but scrapie (the disease that makes sheep think their backs are so itchy that they rub them against posts until they are raw (and then they die)) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease are others.
The hereditary disease referenced in the title is particularly haunting. It's referred to as fatal familial insomnia (FFI) and for most of the world, the chances of having it are one in, I think, several million. But if you belong to one of the approximately forty families in the world affected by it, your chances of getting it are one in two. If you get it, you will become afflicted in middle age and die slowly, painfully and without losing consciousness or awareness. It essentially puts the body into "fight or flight" mode at all times, so that the sufferer is continually in overdrive; and then it prevents the person from being able to sleep. This goes on for about fifteen months, with the victim never sleeping and always in extreme anxiety, and never becoming irrational (so he/she is never numbed to the torture), until death occurs.
It's fascinating/horrifying. However, I found that the book itself was mediocre. The subject matter carries it a long way, and the writing itself is good, but in sections concerned with historical information for which there is obviously not much source material, the author becomes very speculative. Furthermore, he imposes a narrative on the progress of research around these diseases, which seems contrived since there was no concerted, sustained research effort until the latter half of the twentieth century, and all the progress made prior to that point was in occasional, unrelated bursts.
It is an easy read, and good for, say, plane flights, or killing time....more