Just when I was starting to feel a little self-conscious about my list so far being dominated by graphic novels and children's books, I managed to ploJust when I was starting to feel a little self-conscious about my list so far being dominated by graphic novels and children's books, I managed to plow through this tome. Okay, that's an unfair characterization. At times, I was enraptured by this book. I delivered spontaneous lectures to my husband and my co-workers. I posted quotes on Facebook. I engaged in conversation with a cashier who took my money after I spent a lunch period reading voraciously. But to get to these amazing stories, to get to those turns of phrase that were so poetical and profound that I was moved to claim this book as a part of my personal gospel, there was a lot to plow through.
To say this book was uneven would be a master understatement. Church gave himself an ambitious structure -- telling the progress of synthetic biology as a parallel to the processes of natural evolution. It was a wonderful concept, and in the places where it worked it was brilliant. But in other chapters it was so clearly forced that I wished he hadn't bothered. I also found it strange where he chose to explain concepts in great detail (like the chirality of organic molecules) and where there seemed to be no attempt to explain at all (exactly how one obtains sequences of synthetic DNA -- something central to most of the enterprises in his book.) Finally, there are so many mentions of Church's own work, Church's various business start-ups and organizations that eventually it prompted some eye-rolling.
Why, with all this complaining, would I still give this book four out of five stars? Well, because the content is simply amazing. It is hard to walk away from this book and not be awe-struck at what mere mortals have been able to achieve with the tools of science, hopeful for the future, and even a mystical sense of connection with it all. There are amazing stories in here, of synthetic cyanobacteria that can synthesize diesel fuel from the sun, synthetic organisms that can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in large quantities, scientists working to resurrect species from extinction, possible treatments for cancer, therapies that could render organisms immune to all viruses, and so much more -- an international competition inspiring college students on shoestring budgets to engineer possible solutions to an astonishing variety of problems.
Of course, there are ethical considerations in this work, and there are moments (especially in the very beginning), where Church is annoyingly starry-eyed. But what Church sets out to do here is to impress us with the audacity of his dream. (And how close much of it is to reality!) And I must admit, I'm walking away a little starry-eyed myself. ...more
So there's this story, that my microbiology professor once told about Leeuwenhoek. He was the first real master of microscopy. Others had invented theSo there's this story, that my microbiology professor once told about Leeuwenhoek. He was the first real master of microscopy. Others had invented the microscope, others had used them to examine biological specimens, but then Leeuwenhoek came along and made better microscopes, made better observations, more observations, by orders of magnitude. Far surpassed any other work in the area before him and for decades after him. One of the discoveries he is most famous for is describing the "animalcules" living in the plaque on people's teeth.
The story that my professor told is that Leeuwenhoek was horrified to see what was living on his teeth, and after noticing that there were fewer living beasts after he drank coffee or tea, he took to drinking it hotter and hotter, until eventually the scalding liquid weakened his gums and he lost all his teeth.
It's a great story. And as we were working to land a grant for an exhibit about teeth and the mouth at Impression 5, I found myself telling the story at work. Until, as I was telling the story to two of the managers, it suddenly struck me that this story was possibly way too good to be actually true. So I started a quest to verify it. There was depressingly little on the internet, so I looked for books, and those were impossible as well! The only thing I could find an actual copy of was this, part of a series of scientist biographies that seem to be written for elementary school libraries. And no, I'm not judging. I couldn't put it down. Literally. I read most of this book on the walk to work despite the spectacle of walking around with a book clearly written for grade schoolers. And I don't care, because this book was awesome. For weeks I was insufferable, telling absolutely everyone the story of Leeuwenhoek and his microscopes. So much so that I spent some serious time considering looking harder for a "grown-up" biography, and if I couldn't find one WRITING MY OWN. Yeah. Anyone want to float me a contract on spec?
(And no, the "old toothless" story was not in this book. But this is a book for kids -- so I still consider the story neither confirmed nor denied.)...more
Impulse buy at Tuesday Books in Williamston. Clearly the intersection between modern physics and religion is on my mind lately. This book is a collectImpulse buy at Tuesday Books in Williamston. Clearly the intersection between modern physics and religion is on my mind lately. This book is a collection of interviews by Tippett with leading scientists. Not all are physicists, there are also medical doctors, scientists studying revenge, stress, depression. Tippett asks these scientists on the cutting edge of their respective fields how their developing understanding affects their understanding of religion and the universe. So it serves as a sort of sampler of the current world of science.
There's a lot that I really liked about this book. I appreciated the variety even as I tended to be more interested in the physicists and the chapter on Darwin and evolution. I really loved the interview with V.V. Raman, whose Hindi beliefs appreciate multiple ways of knowing, asking, understanding.
At the same time, this book had me frequently grinding my teeth. If someone said something that Tippett found particularly insightful, you were going to know all about it. Certainly it would appear in the transcript of the interview, of course. But additionally, each interview was proceeded by an introduction. Not just an introduction of the person being interviewed, because that appeared in the chapter itself. But an introduction before the chapter, that summarized the work of the interviewee, the interview itself, and touched on individual points and sometimes quotes from the interview. Then also there was an introduction to the entire book that did the same things. By the time you're reading those engaging points within the interviews, you're (or at least I) was like, "Yes, Yes! I remember the time!"
As I complained to everyone within earshot, it was suggested to me multiple times that I just skip the introductions, but that's cheating, and I couldn't force myself to do it. Seriously. Did she write the book over many months and forget that she had already quoted exactly that excerpt before? Could Penguin, in this age of e-books and cost-cutting, just not be bothered to assign this book an editor?
All the repetition made me feel like I'd easily be able to find all the interesting ideas that sparked things in my brain, but now I can't. One of these days, I'll get over my aversion to marking books. (At least some books.)
Despite my frustration, and despite the occasional tripping of my woo-alarm, I highly recommend this book. Just maybe, you know, skip the introductions. ...more
I had been wanting to read this book since it first came out in 2006. First, it took me a while to procure a copy. Then, I convinced myself that I hadI had been wanting to read this book since it first came out in 2006. First, it took me a while to procure a copy. Then, I convinced myself that I had to read James's The Varieties of Religious Experience first. For whatever reason, nas much as I was interested in James's work, I just could make any headway. (Perhaps it's because the edition I own is a bulky tome, and I just got sick of carting it around.)
But suddenly, this summer, it was time. We'd been watching Cosmos together as a family, and while I found the first episode a little tedious, I've just been rapturously in love with it since then. Additionally, some recent conversations at Impression 5 about the big questions of physics have had me eyeing the science shelves of my collection much more seriously when I get home.
So in I dove. This book started out magnificently. Full of the awe at the grandeur of the universe that Sagan was always so enthusiastic about. And the first half contains absolutely gorgeous illustrations. I can hardly imagine anyone not being swept up in Sagan's sense of wonder. Well, anyone not too busy being offended by Sagan's skeptical approach to the claims of the religions of the world. Seriously. I got done with this book thinking I had no business going to church ever again. I'm still recovering.
Anyway, a third of my way into this book, I ran around declaring that this was going to be one of my top ten favorite nonfiction books of all time. Now that I'm finished, I'm not so sure. The problem seems to be a disconnect between what I was hoping for in this book, and what Sagan's intent was in giving these lectures. I eagerly sought out this book to understand better Sagan's spiritual understanding of the universe. To get a glimpse of how his scientific quest sustained and uplifted him. But of course, Sagan's faith? belief? understanding? propelled him further -- to action.
The final chapter focused on the likelihood of the human race exterminating itself before taking the next steps into the stars. Specifically, he focused on the nightmare scenario of nuclear holocaust. Which just felt dated. I know, I know, there are still enough nuclear warheads on this plant to blow us all up several times over, but the sense of urgency seems to have passed. Maybe we're deluding ourselves, but it no longer seems as likely a scenario. It seems much more likely to me, today, that if we are going to destroy ourselves, it will be through climate change/ecosystem collapse -- another concern that was near and dear to Sagan's heart. But the central idea of his conclusion -- that we much unite our religious and scientific efforts in the name of saving ourselves, remains powerful and true.
One of the most delightful features of the book was the excerpts from the transcripts of the Q&A sessions from this lecture series that concludes the book. It was wonderful to read his responses to multiple questioners who tried to back him into various corners -- his answers were always respectful, always assertive, always thoughtful. It did a good deal to pull me out of the funk of the "we're all gonna die" chapter. But still, I am left with the disquieting feeling -- what more could I be doing to protect the future of the human race?...more
So I was in an airport with very little time to spare before my flight, but knowing I had hours of transit yet before I'd be home and I'd just run outSo I was in an airport with very little time to spare before my flight, but knowing I had hours of transit yet before I'd be home and I'd just run out of book. The only airport bookstore I found was tiny and the books on the shelvers were all titles I could only imagine reading under extreme duress (or, rather, wouldn't want to be seen reading unless under extreme duress -- I'm such a snob), and I was on my way out of the store, despairing of having anything to entertain myself but my own over-active and troublesome imagination, but especially no shield against strangers and the rest of the world, when I saw the name Stephen Hawking in big, stark letters and I knew I was saved.
Just for background, without the influence of Stephen Hawking, I might not have a master's degree in physics. Really. I count four main influences (other than my parents) in my choice of a physics degree. The other three were teachers/professors. A boy who was enamored of me once sent me a copy of A Brief History of Time. It was a really good gift. Probably the best gift I ever got from a boyfriend before I met my husband, who buys me bookshelves. (I just checked, because I couldn't remember, and the book wasn't inscribed. That boy was kind of an idiot.)
This is a book of grand ideas on the nature of the universe -- that tries to establish an understanding of the scientific theories on the most basic and fundamental questions underlying the universe. So, you know, big. From grand unified theories to the big bang to string theory, with multi-verses, alternate histories, and the probability of a Chinese pope along the way. It goes about explaining all this with humor, some fabulous illustrations, and Hawking's trademark straight-forwardness, which assures that "all of this is understandable."
That said, I had my usual complaint about this book that I have about all science books written for a lay audience. That is, my understanding is always deepened when I can see the math. It's just how my brain works. Most lay readers, however, are terrified of equations, so it will remain a problem for me. It only really bothered me in the section on Feynman's sum over histories -- something never really covered in any of my classes, but which I'd like to understand better. Time to get myself a textbook?
I would say there is no better place to look for a small, easy-to-understand (but intelligent!) book on the current scientific understanding of the history and structure of the universe, were it not for the recent (maybe) discovery of the Higgs boson -- there's not so much on elementary particles here. Still recommended, anyway. ...more
For some reason, there was something about the structure of Montgomery's sentences that was giving me a hard time getting into a reading groove. Then,For some reason, there was something about the structure of Montgomery's sentences that was giving me a hard time getting into a reading groove. Then, on the road-trip to and from Kansas this winter, I started reading this aloud to Andrew, and from then on I was in love.
So, it's no secret that literal "scientific" readings of Genesis make me cranky. I've read a lot of refutations of young-Earth creationism from a biology/evolution point of view. And of course some of those have incorporated a little bit of geology -- usually the fossil record, with a tiny bit of tectonic plate theory thrown in. But my understanding of radiometric dating was kind of hazy, and my understanding of how different rocks are forms was stuck at a fourth-grade level. Plus, I've heard many times that the presence of flood stories in almost every culture was an overwhelming argument for the existence of a massive, worldwide flood in Earth's history. So a book subtitled A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood? I knew I had to read it.
This is not a skewering of the creationist position (though that happens a few times along the way.) It's far more interesting than that. It is a story of the history of geology, and how the positions of both the scientists and religious leaders were shaped by the search for evidence of Noah's flood. The form of the story so closely parallels the development of biology & the theory of evolution -- starting out with scientists who were also men of God -- looking to better understand "God's other book," nature, in order to better understand God. Only the names and specific discoveries have changed.
And happily, I feel like I have a much better grasp of those discoveries. A more concrete understanding of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. A much better understanding of radiometric dating. And a new favorite trump card for any literalist debate: mammoths.
Oh! And the quotes! Montgomery pulls the best quotes from Galileo, Thomas Paine, even Saint Augustine!
The Fever Trail presents a fascinating story that, in my opinion, could have been better written. I w(this review was originally written for bookslut)
The Fever Trail presents a fascinating story that, in my opinion, could have been better written. I was very excited when my review copy arrived in the mail. I had visited the book's website, which was very well done and it left me eager to read the book. The book promises to be the story of Richard Spruce, Charles Ledger, and Sir Clements Markham, three European men who journeyed to South America in attempts to bring back cinchona, the tree which produces quinine, a drug used to treat malaria -- however, the book is about much more than that. It starts with the South American expeditions, then rambles through the effects of malaria on various battles in military history, then finally ends up by talking about the current efforts to develop a malaria vaccine.
The story itself is very interesting, peopled as it is with so many under-appreciated heroes risking death in order to save the endangered cinchona tree and deliver a reliable source of quinine to the world. At the time during which most of the book is set, cinchona trees grow only high in the mountains of South America. Malaria, of course, is not so confined, being widespread throughout much of Africa, Europe, and Southern Asia. Once the Europeans arrived in the Americas, they introduced malaria to the Western hemisphere as well. Getting cinchona back to Europe not only meant surviving the mosquito-ridden Amazon (at a time when people didn't know that mosquitoes caused malaria, and so didn't take adequate steps to protect themselves), then the trek up into the Andes, and avoiding head-hunting natives, it also meant currying favor with the local governments, who had often outlawed the export of any cinchona plants or seeds. Wars, fires, and theft also had to be avoided. Then, of course, once the plants and seeds had been collected and put on a boat for export, there was the not at all trivial matter of transporting them across the Atlantic alive. The odds were not good. This is gripping stuff.
However many times Mark Honigsbaum's writing left me dreading picking the book up again. From the very beginning his writing style seemed rather random. He defined words whose meaning anyone with a dictionary could have discovered and that he might only have used once, but then phrases like "tertiary fever," which you can't just look up and which appear throughout the book were never explained. The pacing of the book was all over the place, and the jumps back and forth in time and the sheer number of important players in the book often left me baffled. The unfamiliar geography was also a challenge, and though there were maps at the front of the book, I don't recall them ever being referred to in the text, so they weren't nearly as helpful as they might have been.
Overall, I would not recommend this book to someone just looking for an enjoyable popular science book. If that's all you want, read Carl Sagan, or pick up a copy of And the Band Played On. But if you want to know more about malaria and the colonization of South America (as well as much of the Southern Hemisphere), this book is crammed with diverting tidbits and useful information. I do feel smarter for having read this book, and isn't that what we read non-fiction for? ...more
It is widely accepted in the scientific community that Kary Mullis is a kook. Which is a rather odd reaction t(review originally written for Bookslut)
It is widely accepted in the scientific community that Kary Mullis is a kook. Which is a rather odd reaction to a man who has won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and who invented PCR, a tool that not many microbiologists or biochemists would happily live without. But I suppose that it's to be expected, as most press attention that Kary Mullis receives is not centered around his scientific achievements, but rather around his passion for surfing, his past use of LSD, and his reputation for chasing women.
So a book by Kary Mullis is bound to be more interesting than the average book of essays written by a chemist. And oh, is it. To sum up: Mullis believes in astrology, traveling through the astral plane, recreational use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, and glowing raccoons that talk. He doesn't believe in global warming, the advice of nutritionists, or the fact that HIV causes AIDS. To put it mildly, the theories and opinions expressed in his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, are controversial.
They are also terribly fascinating. Amongst the many things that Kary Mullis is, he is also an excellent story teller. I ended up reading at least 80% of this book aloud to my husband. It would start out, "Oh, you have to hear this!", and then I would inevitably back up and read him the whole chapter. In this book, Mullis meets the empress of Japan and calls her "sweetie," nearly kills himself with nitrous oxide, is bitten by several brown recluses back when the only known treatment was surgery, speaks to a glowing raccoon in the forest, accidentally causes an explosion during a science demonstration, and also accidentally makes tear gas in a friend's garage the summer after they graduated from high school. He has no shortage of interesting stories to tell, and he tells them well.
He's also very persuasive. I read the chapter on astrology and was ready to go out and buy an astrological chart. I read the chapter on appropriate use of scientific funding and inquiry and was ready to write a letter to my congressman, asking him to defund the relativistic heavy ion collider (RHIC) in favor of funding the search for near-Earth asteroids that could collide with our planet. (This is especially significant because I spent two years working on projects related to RHIC while pursuing my masters degree, and actually have two friends employed at RHIC right now.) Of course, most of these conversions were short-lived, and on some issues he never had much of a chance of convincing me (in fact I think it's dangerous to assert that human beings could not possibly alter the climate), but some of his arguments linger. For instance, there is a disturbing lack of scientific evidence supporting the claim that the HIV virus causes AIDS. It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory at first to doubt something that we've all taken for granted for so long, but if it were true, why aren't there articles in peer-reviewed journals offering evidence to that end?
Kary Mullis can mess with your mind just as effectively as a dose of LSD. So if you read this book, read it with a healthy dose of scientific skepticism. As Mullis himself points out, just because something is published (and even in a scientific journal), that doesn't make it so. And just because the man won a Nobel prize, that doesn't mean he's an expert on every topic he discusses. But read this book because it's fun.
I promise it will make you laugh. And shake your head in disbelief. The only thing it won't do is bore you....more
Okay, well, first of all, let's be totally honest about how I ended up with this book. One day I was getting ready to go out to lunch solo and realizeOkay, well, first of all, let's be totally honest about how I ended up with this book. One day I was getting ready to go out to lunch solo and realized there was no book in my purse. So I went upstairs to check the Science Store for reading material. Well, 98% of the books are aimed at kids, and of the "grown-up" choices, there was a small stack of these (as opposed to just one or two of the others), so I decided to even out the inventory and bought this.
I suppose that it was interesting enough, as I finished it, but it was frightfully dry in places, would have benefited immeasurably by including a few illustrations, and I remain at a loss to understand the logic behind the placement of all (or any) of the sidebars. I do understand that this was "only" the companion book to a PBS program. Perhaps the author believed only those who had seen/were seeing the program would read the book? But as someone who took an optics class fourteen years ago, I was constantly yearning for ray diagrams to show how all the different lenses and lens arrangements actually worked. Not to mention in the more complicated reflector telescopes with compound mirrors and active optics systems... They could have ditched all those stupid sidebars and replaced them with a dozen illustrations and my enjoyment of this book would have doubled.
I did find it interested to learn about all the different types of telescopes and what they are all studying. Then again, I have a degree in physics and friends actively working in astronomy. (And I've visited at least two of the telescopes in this book!) So I would hesitate before recommending this book to anyone else, unless they had a similar level of interest. I hate to say it, but I don't see us selling out of this book anytime soon....more
One could almost believe this book is contemporary, with the recent Star Trek reboot movie bringing Trek back into popular culture, but alas, this booOne could almost believe this book is contemporary, with the recent Star Trek reboot movie bringing Trek back into popular culture, but alas, this book is from 1995. (It would have been really interesting to see what Krauss would have done with all that black hole sloppiness in J.J. Abram's movie.) But I finally got around to reading this, partially thanks to the TBR pile and Science reading challenges. It's not good to let books sit ignored for so long!
Reading this book, as with most popular science books, was an interesting experience. At one time, not so far distant, I had a really good grasp on most of the concepts explored in this book. But really, it's been years since I've thought of most of it in any sort of sustained way. So on one level, it was a light and interesting romp through some of the most profound concepts of physics, using the storytelling of the Trek universe to illustrate the implications. But on another level, I kept getting stuck, demanding my brain return to an earlier condition in which all of this was as native and easy to understand as my frivolous Facebook game strategies are now. But that state is hard to achieve when you're only getting to read the book in two-minute snatches, having to reread as much to remember where you were as you read new in any given sitting.
This book is dated and yet not. Engaging and easy one moment and mind-twisting the next. It would be very interesting to see an updated edition -- to bring into account the new movie as well as the detectors that Krauss mentions being built as he is writing that now have recently started producing interesting results. Amazon suggests there is a Kindle version revised in 2007, but the movie came out in 2009. I say another edition is due!
Interesting, but I will probably be releasing into the wilds of paperbackswap, as I have plenty of other reference physics texts....more