About once a year, I come across a book that I think everyone should read. This year, Henrietta Lacks takes the prize.
Chances are very high that youAbout once a year, I come across a book that I think everyone should read. This year, Henrietta Lacks takes the prize.
Chances are very high that you have encountered Henrietta in the form of HeLa. If you or anyone you love have ever been vaccinated or treated for a disease, HeLa surely played a part in the medicine you took. Yet who is HeLa? We know that scientists study rats and mice, but did you know that many studies use HeLa before they ever get funding for mice or rats?
Henrietta was a country girl from Clover, Virginia. When she grew sick and died, some cells from the cancer that killed her were excised and saved. Those cells kept growing, and they were used to study the effects of every manner of hardship, from disease to radiation, and big Pharma subsequently made big profits from developed medicines. The cells, lovingly known as HeLa, have been the starting point for myriad medical studies and are known throughout the world. Here, you meet both Henrietta and HeLa.
This book, taking the reader through the dark recesses of history's racist past,juxtaposes virology and cancer research with cutting social commentary. It evokes a time when medical trials could be conducted on black people, prisoners, and the poor without consent or even warning. In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins was the boogeyman: children were told that if they strayed or were out beyond curfew,"Hopkins might get us."
The first two sections of this book get five stars. The last part, three. The first section, "Life," gives a history of both the cells and the lady who gave them, and as such is profoundly moving. The second, "Death," is really a continuation and finale of the first part. The last part, "Immortality," however, loses its stride. The sharp social commentary becomes deeply personal as the author becomes more involved with the family. The style feels jolting and rugged; instead of telling a compelling narrative, the style begins to feel like a socially awkward dinner guest constantly prattling "and then...and then...and then..." It also harps on certain issues repetitively, such as the ethics of compensation, the pain Henrietta suffered in death, and the ironic lack of medical care her family received due to poverty. Sometimes, I want to scream, "I get it! Put away the club!," but, to be fair, the author did become deeply involved with the family as the work progressed, and the things she mentions repeatedly have been issues of almost obsessive inquiry by the family members she spoke with. I think the book must have been predominantly finished before the third part ever happened; complaining about the it seems, in the end, like picking nits.
Read this book. No matter how enlightened you think you are, it will change your worldview.
Who knew that "the most beautiful woman in the world" was an inventor? Try not to assume immediately that Hedy Lamarr (née Hedwig Kiesler) was the mosWho knew that "the most beautiful woman in the world" was an inventor? Try not to assume immediately that Hedy Lamarr (née Hedwig Kiesler) was the most fortunate person on earth. This book follows Hedy from her beginnings in Austria to her flight from Nazism to Hollywood (it wasn't a cakewalk) and describes how she came up with the idea of frequency-hopping signaling devices that were perfect for allowing missiles to fly through the air without detection.
To be fair, this book is also about George Antheil, an American composer of German decent who collaborated with Hedy on her patent. (He was probably not pretty enough to picture on the cover - from the pictures in the photo insert, he looks a bit stern.) There is some doubt about how much of the idea was his, some suspicion about his desire to gain credit for it, but plenty of evidence that he was quite instrumental in implementing a design for its use by considering the mechanics of a player piano. (Ha! See what I did there?)
If you are now confused about the contents of this book, I can assure you that Richard Rhodes quite ably describes everything - up to and including the workings of a player piano. While it does feel sometimes as if the author is trying to cram too much into a single volume - two lives, one war, and the story of a great idea - he does a good job of not letting all the tangential narratives run amok.
A quirky and fun examination of the human obsession with proving the existence of the afterlife. Science itself seems to become a specter in some of tA quirky and fun examination of the human obsession with proving the existence of the afterlife. Science itself seems to become a specter in some of the experiments described in this book. Also, I will forever think of New Age hullabaloo as communing with the "spit-its". ...more
The last book I read by Mary Roach, "Spook", was about “spit-its”. This one is about spit.
Well, not exclusively. “Gulp” is best described as an alimenThe last book I read by Mary Roach, "Spook", was about “spit-its”. This one is about spit.
Well, not exclusively. “Gulp” is best described as an alimentary miscellany. (Go ahead, say that a few times fast.) Besides saliva, Ms. Roach explores mastication, gastric acid, flatulence, the small intestine, the colon, and…another four letter word containing the letters s-i-t.
I admire this author for her ability to tackle otherwise creepy-icky subjects with a fresh sense of wonder. I learned so much by reading this book, mostly because Ms. Roach is not afraid to explore topics many of us are a little too squeamish to tackle on our own. She does so with humor – I laughed pretty much constantly throughout.
Although, let’s face it…no matter how you dress up the language, farts are always funny.
*Burp!* *Pfft!* It’s not gross…it’s science! ...more
This was a fun diversion. There’s a lot of familiar material here for those of us that have already delved deeply into the mysteries of science; howevThis was a fun diversion. There’s a lot of familiar material here for those of us that have already delved deeply into the mysteries of science; however, there’s plenty of technological arcana in what I consider to be a thrilling narrative which kept my interest.
Mr. Johnson certainly has a knack for storytelling, presenting both major inventions and little-known early innovations. Consider, for example, the tale of the phonautograph, a device built in 1857 by French stenographer Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville to record sound waves. It is the first known sound recording, using pig bristles to “write” sounds on a coated cylinder. Though Monseigneur Martinville did not find a solution to actually play the recorded sounds, his idea pre-dates Thomas Edison’s first successful audio playback by 31 years. Furthermore, his recording of “Au Claire de la Lune” from 1860 was recently played in a lab in California and - amid crackles and pops - is now known as the oldest recording of the human voice. It gave me chills to consider Martinville’s voice coming through 150 years after its capture!
I also always get a little thrill when I read the story of Ada Lovelace, who is thought to be the first computer programmer. She saw that Charles Babbage’s analytical engine was capable much more than mere arithmetic:
“Many persons imagine that because the business of the engine is to give its results in numerical notation the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols...Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and musical composition were susceptible of such expressions and adaptations, the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” -Ada Lovelace, ca. 1840.
Further stories about lenses, proper glass in ancient Egyptian pyramids, radar, neon, flash photography, sound amplification and refrigeration are fascinating anecdotes about the ideas that drive us forward and the innovators that are capable of making a few leaps of logic, usually across narrowly defined fields of study, that can literally change the world as we know it. It all ties nicely to his theory that there is usually an “adjacent possible” that drives all innovation: a series of discoveries and/or a new standard of operating that fosters creativity and invention.
Although I enjoyed this book, I was dismayed to discover a few historical inaccuracies. For example, Mr. Johnson calls the day of the notorious stock market crash “Black Friday” instead of “Black Tuesday” (p.74), gives apparent credit to John Snow, who *did* do very important work on cholera, for naming microorganisms “animalcules”, instead of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (p.140), and implied that Constantinople “fell” in 1204, when Constantinople, a Christian capital, albeit Orthodox, was sacked by (in my humble opinion) Roman Catholic thugs. While it never really fully recovered its former glory, the true fall of Constantinople was in May 1453 when it lost its king, its Christianity, and - most importantly for lovers of catchy tunes - its name. He also seems to be on team Edison instead of team Tesla, but, then again, not everyone realizes there’s a war on (p.14).
This was definitely worth the read: I learned quite a bit. This book is perfect for generalists who are wanting to learn more about important innovations that have ushered in the modern era. It is also suitable for science enthusiasts to share some of the wonders of scientific discovery with non-scientists - even, perhaps, with a precocious niece or nephew. ...more