A dangerous book to read over dinner, given how frequently I laughed -- which is not what you might expect from a non-fiction book about Britain's bumA dangerous book to read over dinner, given how frequently I laughed -- which is not what you might expect from a non-fiction book about Britain's bumblebees. Goulson's style is so engaging, though, that I was as entertained as I was educated.
Though the focus is on bumblebees in the UK, the underlying theme is universal: that habitat destruction damages populations of creatures great and small, including some we typically only think about when a careless barefoot stroll leads to a sting. I had no idea of the complexities and variations amongst bumblebee species. The bit on cuckoo bees, which mimic and hijack the nests of ordinary bumblebees, was particularly fascinating, as was the description of the very peculiar genetics of bees. Spoiler: female bees are diploid, as we are, but males are usually haploid, which means they grow just fine from an unfertilized egg.
I also, as a scientist, particularly appreciated Goulson's recounting of his various experiments, which often didn't go as planned. They also involved a lot of hacking together of non-standard equipment (such as plastic hair curlers as temporary housing for queen bees), which was not surprising given Goulson and his teams are often running novel studies.
The book both begins and ends with the tale of the short-haired bumblebee, a species native to Britain which was introduced to New Zealand in the late 1800's, subsequently went extinct in its native region, and is currently being reintroduced into Kent. The description of this project was enough to make me order red clover and wildflower seeds for planting this spring: it's a small effort, true, but this book shows that many little things can make a tremendous impact....more
Can you romp through the brain, learning as you go? I think that's what I just did. This was marvelously entertaining, rich in history with the gossipCan you romp through the brain, learning as you go? I think that's what I just did. This was marvelously entertaining, rich in history with the gossipy details that bring these historical doctors and researchers to life.
Kean recounts a history of brain research, starting from gross anatomy in the 16th century, to current debates over the nature of consciousness today. I'm a sucker for a book that's both educational and makes me laugh, which was certainly true here....more
I wanted to like this book, particularly a this is a historical period that I've been particularly interested in of late. But I found the first hundreI wanted to like this book, particularly a this is a historical period that I've been particularly interested in of late. But I found the first hundred pages too dry to hold my attention and couldn't finish....more
Hullo, Goodreads; it's been an awfully long time since I've reviewed a book.
This one's an excellent selection for getting back into the swing of it, tHullo, Goodreads; it's been an awfully long time since I've reviewed a book.
This one's an excellent selection for getting back into the swing of it, though. This history of Bell Labs spans the 20th century, focussing on their heyday in the 40's and 50's in an excellent blend of history and science. As someone who was only passingly familiar with the Labs, just enough to know they had a significant impact on consumer electronics through the 80's, I found Gertner's descriptions of such wide-ranging innovations as the transistor and satellite technology fascinating.
I could've done with a slight bit more of the science, actually, but that's just a personal preference. Gertner frames the history by detailing the careers of a half dozen of the Labs most influential (and sometimes controversial) scientists. I was particularly taken with the biography of Claude Shannon, mathematician, father of Information Theory, and dilettante in whatever caught his fancy in the moment (unicycles for one).
The dissolution of Ma Bell is the focus of the final couple chapters, which is naturally something of a down note as we know the Labs will inevitably fade into an echo of what they once were, but Gertner manages to make even the political machinations of the Labs' relationship with Washington interesting. Though Bell Labs was a peculiar product of its time -- and funded by a monopoly of a kind that couldn't exist again -- I still found myself wishing we could see what a modern, far more diverse gathering of great minds would produce in a similar hotbed today....more
A non-mathematical discussion of how game theory applies to daily dilemmas and negotiations, this was a surprisingly easy read. Fisher's explanationsA non-mathematical discussion of how game theory applies to daily dilemmas and negotiations, this was a surprisingly easy read. Fisher's explanations are consistently clear (no facility with higher math required) and his writing light-hearted and entertaining. From the many examples provided from Fisher's personal life, it seems one invites him to a dinner party at the risk of turning the evening into an experiment in game theory. (Personally, I think that'd be a great way to enliven an evening, but then I spent my last dinner party discussing the implications of the forensic DNA typing I'd performed on one of my guests and her five siblings. My idea of entertainment may be suspect.)
I particularly enjoyed the discussion of computer models as a method for examining which strategies work best for determining the optimal outcome between two (or more) self-interested parties.
I would perhaps have liked a more detailed look at the applications of game theory on a political and global scale. The percentage of the book devoted to introducing the subject and personal exemplars seemed to overwhelm the last couple chapters, which is where Fisher ultimately got around to providing concrete suggestions for daily applications.
But this is a minor nitpick. I'm hoping to track down Fisher's other books as well....more
When your author is not only a neurologist, but also a novelist and avid poker player, it makes for a highly entertaining book. Burton's writing is atWhen your author is not only a neurologist, but also a novelist and avid poker player, it makes for a highly entertaining book. Burton's writing is at once analytical and conversational as he discusses the feeling of certainty, its biological basis, and its influence on our (illogical) actions.
Unfortunately, his transitions are a bit meandering, which would be less of a problem if the book didn't trail off towards the end without reaching a satisfyingly strong conclusion. Though this would have perhaps worked better as a collection of essays, it's still well worth checking out from your library....more
Picked this up when looking for another of Poundstone's books and I'm extremely glad I did. This is a detailed (but not dense) look at various votingPicked this up when looking for another of Poundstone's books and I'm extremely glad I did. This is a detailed (but not dense) look at various voting systems and their inherent flaws, including the spoiler effect that makes the United State's plurality system unfair, the strategic voting that dooms the Borda count, and the complexity of instant runoff voting. If the ideal voting system is one that elects the candidate most palatable to the greatest number of voters, then we're more than overdue for a change.
Numerous historical examples are provided as illustrations. My only complaint is that the book peters off just as Poundstone offers up the simple rating system (much like what's used on Amazon.com and IMDB) as a potential solution; his analysis is less than through, perhaps due to a lack of data....more
After seeing Dr. Taylor's talk on TED.com, I put a hold on this book at the library. I wasn't the only one, as I took several months for my number toAfter seeing Dr. Taylor's talk on TED.com, I put a hold on this book at the library. I wasn't the only one, as I took several months for my number to come up.
This is a brief but fascinating memoir of Taylor's experience during and following her hemorrhagic stroke at age 37. How often does a neuroanatomist not only experience a stroke, but survive and recover sufficiently to communicate her experience to others? For Taylor, having the left hemisphere of her brain abruptly muffled gave her the unique opportunity to see the world through the quieter, more compassionate lens of her right hemisphere -- and experience that she credits with giving her a more balanced-brain approach to life during and after her recovery.
Not only fascinating for its advice on interacting with someone who's recovering from a stroke, this is well worth a read for anyone who's fought to silence that critical, negative, ego-voice that originates in the left hemisphere. The brain's a plastic thing: there's no reason to wait for a stroke to reprogram your neurons....more
This is half a memoir, half a book on the biological basis of cognition, and I dove into it enthusiastically. Unfortunately, there's easily enough matThis is half a memoir, half a book on the biological basis of cognition, and I dove into it enthusiastically. Unfortunately, there's easily enough material in here for two books, one for the personal aspects and one for the science. I burned out halfway through Kandel's career, and couldn't muster the enthusiasm to finish the final hundred-odd pages before it was due back at the library.
Still, I'll keep an eye out for a used copy, because the subject is fascinating indeed: how does one study the biological foundations of thought and cognition? What's the mechanism for self-awareness? Understanding how electrical impulses are propagated between neurons is difficult enough: how do you design an experiment to measure thoughts? Kandel's certainly one for asking the big questions, and his tales of laboratory serendipity offer an amusing look inside the life of a research scientist....more
Another excellent book on the people behind the science from the author of "The Beak of the Finch". While not as tightly organized as "Finch", I'm oncAnother excellent book on the people behind the science from the author of "The Beak of the Finch". While not as tightly organized as "Finch", I'm once again enchanted by how wonderfully Weiner writes science without either baffling the layperson or dumbing it down to the point of irrelevance.
An excellent look at the people and the experiments that underlie our current understanding of genetics, behavior, and the molecular-level connections between the two. There's also a strong understanding here of the limits of the science, as well as a recognition of how the popular press, as ignorant of basic science as the average American, often overstates the significance of a finding. When the research is a remarkable and groundbreaking as that of these molecular biologists, it needs no gilding -- just Weiner's splendid explanations....more
Bryson's dead serious: this is a history of pretty much everything there is -- the planet, the solar system, the universe -- as well as a history of hBryson's dead serious: this is a history of pretty much everything there is -- the planet, the solar system, the universe -- as well as a history of how we've come to know as much as we do. A book on science written by a non-scientist, this a perfect bridge between the humanities and the natural sciences. A course in the history of science should be mandatory for every teenager, and this should be the textbook.
Yes, it's a big, chunky book. No, it can't be trimmed down any further: when you're addressing cosmology, earth science, ecology and zoology, with healthy doses of chemistry and physics, plus the historical development of each, you're going to end up with a doorstop of a text, no matter how smoothly written. The wonder of Bryson's writing is that the reader doesn't get lost in these sweeping surveys. When name-dropping, Bryson always gives a short description of the person in question; if mentioned earlier in the book, he drops in a quick reminder to the reader. This is fabulously effective at giving the names some context, not to mention a little personality.
And indeed, isn't that what science education needs most: more humanity and less intimidation? Those science-phobes out there who freely admit their near-complete ignorance of the subject should do themselves a favor and buy a copy of this book. No, don't get it from your library. There's so much here you'll want to have a copy on hand to refer to later.
To those nerds in the audience -- myself included -- don't think your degrees mean you can pass this one over. As hyper-specialized as science has become, it's refreshing as hell to step back and take a look at things with new eyes. While there's not a lot here I haven't encountered before, there's a lot of information about how our current theories were developed that I didn't know.
(Also? It's heartening to read about the social ineptitude, blind spots, and how utterly incompetent many of these scientist were in other aspects of life. Makes me feel better about never finishing that PhD -- at least I have a life.)
Thorough, humorous, engaging, and educational: what's not to like? ...more
It's true: nearly five hundred pages can be devoted entirely to the historical importance of salt. I won't take my little blue Morton's canister for gIt's true: nearly five hundred pages can be devoted entirely to the historical importance of salt. I won't take my little blue Morton's canister for granted again.
Expansive in its historical scope, this book covers the economic and cultural importance of salt throughout recorded history -- and back even further by extrapolating from archaeological finds on various continents. But for all the sprawling history, the book's focus is more narrow than I expected: it's primarily concerned with the commerce, trade, and engineering behind salt production. Though not what I was expecting when I picked this book up, it was an interesting read, and a look at history from a perspective I'd never considered.
The most entertaining -- and the most humanizing -- aspect of the book were the recipes scattered throughout, selected from Roman cookbooks, advice books for young Renaissance wives, magazines published during the American Civil War: anywhere people have recorded their favorite recipes, which is just about anywhere the written word has flourished. Food is necessary for survival, but cuisine is necessary for culture.
This book could easily have gone from three stars to four, however, had a more discriminating editor combed through and eliminated some of the redundancies and meanderings. Later chapters contained multiple restatements of the book's earlier sections, as if Kurlansky expected the reader to be skimming the book out of order. Periodically, the book also devolves into a recounting of events in chronological order, as if the author were stringing together a series of essays rather than synthesizing a single, thematically-tight book....more
When I joined Goodreads a few months back, I set two rules for myself: first, to review books as I read or re-read them, and second, to be sparingWow.
When I joined Goodreads a few months back, I set two rules for myself: first, to review books as I read or re-read them, and second, to be sparing with my ratings. I've not given any book five stars this summer. This is the first.
Weiner won the Pulitzer for general non-fiction with this book in 1995. He utterly deserves it. While it's not difficult to find an interesting non-fiction book, and not too hard to find a truly gifted writer (the market's competitive like that), finding someone who discusses science with such evocative, expressive language is a rarity. Neither too dry nor too familiar, Weiner's writing is as wonderful as his subject matter.
Rosemary and Peter Grant are two evolutionary biologists who did what no one had attempted to do before: beginning in the early 70's, they studied, measured, and documented every detail of the finches on Daphne Major, one of the Galapagos islands, in an effort to determine if evolutionary changes could be observed over a span of decades instead of eons. Amazingly, they succeeded far beyond their expectations: selection does not occur at the glacial pace Darwin envisioned, but at a flickering rate measurable over years, seasons, and days. The smallest differences -- so small that no one had thought them worthy of study prior to the Grants -- have an effect so profound on a population that it's literally visible to the naked eye.
A fabulous description of the dedication, tedium, and sheer amount of number-crunching involved in field research, Weiner talks to many of the biologists inspired by the Grants: those studying fish, insects, and viruses -- those gathering data that Darwin never thought possible to observe in the span of a single human lifetime....more
During a recent inventory of our shelves, I discovered a previous edition of this book. It was worth buying again.
I love non-fiction written for the iDuring a recent inventory of our shelves, I discovered a previous edition of this book. It was worth buying again.
I love non-fiction written for the interested non-expert who wants to learn more about a subject, but hasn't the background necessary to wade through a collegiate text. Trudgill's ability to write without condescending to or overshooting his audience's understanding is impressive.
Each chapter addresses a different aspect of language as relates to culture -- social class, for example, as well as gender, national identity, and ethnicity -- but as these are difficult topics to separate, the chapters reference each other with great frequency. Beyond providing examples of how language affects our perception of the world (and how our use of language affects how other perceive us), Trudgill provides a historical context to how linguistic research is conducted, and he touches on several questions that remain unresolved among linguists.
There's a great deal of information in this book, so it isn't a quick read. You may also wish to have a copy of the international phonetic alphabet at hand, if you haven't any formal background in linguistics. Otherwise, this layperson had no trouble following Trudgill's excellent examples of current thinking in this field....more