Years ago, I bought a copy of this book for my insect-obsessed sister, then promptly forgot all about it. Then, recently, I heard about Maria Sibylla...moreYears ago, I bought a copy of this book for my insect-obsessed sister, then promptly forgot all about it. Then, recently, I heard about Maria Sibylla Merian again and decided i needed to know more about her. I ended up rediscovering this book and putting it on my library hold list. It's actually part of what inspired my new Women in Science phase -- after that I looked up several other biographies of female scientists and added them to my to-read list as well.
Merian's topic was metamorphosis, at a time when spontaneous generation was just starting to be disproven. In fact, Merian's work contributed to the refutations in a significant way. She was interested in metamorphosis in general, but in caterpillars in particular. Her medium was watercolor. (At a time when she was actually barred from painting in oils by artists guilds because she was a woman.) She raised hundreds of caterpillars, hoping to watch and document their transformations. Friends brought and sent her caterpillars. She sought permission to explore nearby gardens in the hopes of finding new caterpillars. She kept careful notes of dates, observations, sketches. And then she published. Books of watercolors with caterpillar/pupa/moth or butterfly on the same page. Perhaps more importantly, on their host plant. At first, she represents this work lightly -- telling stories designed to amuse of she and her friends in their fine dresses on country strolls, scrambling after insects. Suggesting her watercolors be used as inspirational patterns for embroidery. But she must have taken her work more seriously as time went on, because at the turn of the 18th century, she and her daughter sailed to Surinam to document metamorphosis there, quite possibly the first cross-Atlantic expedition for purely scientific reasons.
I could go on and on and on, but I'm going to try to rein it in. Things I want to particularly note: Merian was a contemporary of Leeuwenhoek! I think right now I am in love with turn of the 18th century Amsterdam. The hobbyist scientists. The salons full of new ideas. The crazy collections of artifacts and the birth of museums. Also, a chapter in the end about her enduring influence discusses how her work was held to some higher standard: she was dismissed entirely for decades because she was wrong about a few things, despite the significance of her gaffes being largely in line with those of her contemporaries. (Always my favorite example: Leeuwenhoek was sure that the entire germ for a new being came from the sperm. The egg was just a house to be filled.)
Also, I need to acknowledge that the author admits a dearth of primary sources about Merian's inner world. Very well recorded is what she saw, what she painted. But very little record remains of what she felt. About anything, ever. Todd is pretty transparent about this, and I thought she did an admirable job of both filling in the blanks and also directly stating what she is basing these speculations on as she makes them.
Recommended to those interested in insects, women in science and/or art, ecology, or turn of the 18th century worldviews. (less)
I picked up this book at the bookstore and was instantly smitten with it. However, at the time I was feeling guilty about how much money I'd been spen...moreI picked up this book at the bookstore and was instantly smitten with it. However, at the time I was feeling guilty about how much money I'd been spending on books, so I put it back down and checked this out at the library instead.
I may have to buy it anyway.
Let me write you a love song to this book. Everything about it was enchanting. Of course, I already knew that I was interested in the topic -- having read a few books by Jane Goodall and seen a biopic on Dian Fossey. I had also recently read about Louis Leakey (in A Brain for All Seasons), though I hadn't put it together that it was the same Leakey who recruited women and sent them off into the jungle to observe primates until reading this. So it was no surprise to find myself in love from the very first page. The illustration style was endearing. The details chosen and the way each person was introduced and conveyed showed just how different the three women are/were, despite all that they had in common. And while I'm certainly not an expert on the subject, it seemed that Leakey's "woman problem" was handled pretty evenly and matter-of-factly -- his affairs with students/mentees (he was a married man), sometimes unwanted sexual attention, while simultaneously putting women on a pedestal as naturally superior researchers.
These three women (and Leakey, of course), changed what it means to be human. They altered our relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom forever. This is a fantastic introduction to their work, but could definitely only be considered an introduction. It has definitely made me want to learn more about both Leakey and Galdikas.
Always more books to read! (Helpfully, there is a lovely bibliography at the back.)(less)
It took me an unreasonably long time to get into this book, mostly because of the format. Each chapter was topped with a header like that of an email,...moreIt took me an unreasonably long time to get into this book, mostly because of the format. Each chapter was topped with a header like that of an email, sent to "Human Evolution E-Seminar" and listing the latitude and longitude of the author's location on some worldwide tour of important sites in human evolution. There was nothing on the flaps or in the introduction about this being an e-seminar? Was it? Was the author really teaching a class? Really on a worldwide tour of paleontology and archaeology? Or was it all some conceit to structure the book? If so, why? Because it was dead annoying. It was already enough that the author assumed a familiarity with both the history of human evolution, its prevalent theories, and climate jargon. Adding the layer of this e-seminar just made me me vaguely anxious, like somehow I'd signed up for a class without having taken the prerequisites and that there was going to be trouble come midterm time.
Which is a shame because there was a lot of fascinating content once the rest was sifted through. I came away with three main ideas. One was that a main reason that human evolution occurred so quickly was thanks to many repeated boom-bust cycles caused by abrupt (and extreme!) climate change flip-flops, the second was an extended argument abou the nature of a widespread and long-used artifact from human tool-production history, and then the final third or so is devoted to discussing possible mechanisms for abrupt climate flip-flops and the evidence for those.
That last idea is why I bought the book, and it didn't disappoint. Though now I'm very curious about how this idea has aged (this book was published 2002) and what the current thinking on the topic is. I need to read more about climate. (less)
This book caught my eye on a recent trip to the bookstore, and I bought it on impulse. A non-fiction graphic "novel" about science denialism and vario...moreThis book caught my eye on a recent trip to the bookstore, and I bought it on impulse. A non-fiction graphic "novel" about science denialism and various quackery? I mean, how could I resist?
Cunningham chose topics that are intentionally controversial. The kinds of things that cause comment wars in science blogs over and over again: The Moon Hoax, Homeopathy, Chiropractic, The MMR Vaccination Scandal, Evolution, Fracking, and Climate Change. Which is exactly how they appear in the table of comments, though there is also a final chapter on Science Denialism in general.
This was a fast read, visceral and concise. That makes the essays great nuggets for urging on a science-denying friend, but I sometimes wished for a little less brevity, particularly in the Moon Hoax chapter, But what I do particularly like about this book is that Cunningham does not try to set himself up as the ultimate authority on any of these issues. Rather, what he is promoting is the scientific method itself -- which, by its very nature is open to new conclusions should new evidence become available.
So, yes. There are a few chapters that I'm yearning to find a tactful way to force on some particular friends who jumped instantly to mind. If that process is successful, this book will have paid for itself in spades. Until then, I suppose it can find a happy enough spot on my shelves.(less)
Honestly, I don't think that I'd ever given the wooly mammoth all that much thought, before this year. Of cour...more(review originally written for bookslut)
Honestly, I don't think that I'd ever given the wooly mammoth all that much thought, before this year. Of course when I was five I was obsessed with dinosaurs, as nearly all children that age are, but I don't remember that obsession ever spilling over to anything with hair - except maybe the saber tooth tiger.
Which is why it's fairly remarkable that I've found myself reading about mammoths twice this year. Somehow mammoths have become the new great sexy beast when I wasn't looking. First the mammoth rated pretty much its own chapter in The Ghost With Trembling Wings by Scott Weidensaul. Then I picked up Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant by Richard Stone, which obviously made the mammoth its main character.
There actually is a reason for all of this sudden interest. Two of them, to be precise. The first was an attempt by Arctic explorer Bernard Buigues to excavate a mammoth entire, while still in its protective block of frozen tundra soil. If successful, such an attempt would allow the removal of the frozen cube to a controlled environment where the mammoth could be defrosted more slowly, with less damage to the tissues that had been preserved for thousands of years.
Of course the advantage of such a well-preserved specimen is not just a lovely museum exhibit, but it also would hold great promise for eventually cloning the mammoth, an endeavor that Japanese scientist Akiri Iritani is poised to pursue. This is the second reason for the new interest in mammoths. Cloning a large extinct animal has so far been limited to fantasy worlds like Jurassic Park. The recent success of cloning sheep inspires hope in these researchers, but the obstacles to cloning a mammoth would be huge even if intact mammoth cells were discovered.
Perhaps more realistic is the alternative route pursued by Japanese researcher Kazufumi Goto, who hopes to find intact mammoth sperm which he could use to impregnate an elephant. The possibility of creating a hybrid has a big advantage in that a sperm cell does not have to be alive in order to impregnate an egg. However there are a lot of obstacles in this path as well.
The most interesting thing about Mammoth is the quandary such research creates. If one day it were possible to create a mammoth clone or hybrid, should we do so? What are the moral and ethical implications in raising an extinct species from the dead? Especially an extinct species whose habitat no longer exists on this Earth. What would be the point? Just to prove that we can? And would we just create a single individual, or try to recreate a sustainable population? Given the difficulties in creating even a single mammoth, the odds against being able to create enough individuals with sufficient genetic diversity to maintain that population seem insurmountable at the present time. Would it be more tragic to see the mammoth flicker and die out for a second time, or would the glory of seeing such a great beast walk the earth again be worth the work?
There are people in Mammoth who have great faith that one day there will exist a park in Siberia where mammoth will roam with buffalo and reindeer once more. It is certainly true that science has brought about many wonders that no one believed would ever come to pass. However I do not believe that I will ever see a live mammoth in my lifetime. Personally, I find the idea of a living museum exhibit to be a bit disturbing. While the quest for the mammoth has led to some interesting science, we live in a world in which the majority of species alive today are uncatalogued and unidentified. If these species were to go extinct tomorrow no one would even notice, yet their absence could be potentially more devastating than more charismatic megafauna like the mammoth.
As for the book itself, Richard Stone writes with a clear and logical style. Although he is the European News Editor of Science magazine, he doesn't even suffer from magazine writer's disease too badly (where each chapter feels more like a feature in a magazine rather than an integrated chapter in a larger book.) I also appreciated that although Stone brings up the moral dilemmas inherent to the research he discusses, he never beats you over the head with the fact that they are dilemmas, nor his opinion of them. Rather, the reader is left free to make up their own mind. Of course, the reader may also choose not to commit to 215 pages on a single extinct mammal, for which I would not blame them. In that case, let me recommend to them The Ghost with Trembling Wings as a well-written treatment of vanished and vanishing species.(less)
If you're looking for an impassioned argument for animal rights, Drawing the Line is not the book for...more(this review was originally written for Bookslut)
If you're looking for an impassioned argument for animal rights, Drawing the Line is not the book for you. If you're looking for a manifesto, a clearly drawn out list of rights and wrongs for living a life respectful of animal rights, then Drawing the Line is still not for you. But if you're looking for a well thought out discussion of animal rights, based on science and with an eye for the law... Well, then, Steven Wise's Drawing the Line is just about perfect.
Although many of his anecdotes have deep emotional appeal, Wise does not rely on tugging the heartstrings to make his case. An animal rights lawyer, his writing is careful and structured, frequently consulting the opinions of experts in the fields of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and animal behavior. Fundamentally, his argument is a legal one, aiming to convince the law community to grant legal "dignity rights" to animals based on their capabilities.
Based on the idea that personal autonomy is not absolute, but rather can exist on a variable scale, Wise proposes extending that scale to nonhuman animals. Just as a judge would grant more rights to a fully capable adult than they might to a two-year-old child, does it not make as much sense to grant the same rights to an animal with the same ability to reason and communicate as that child? He then defines a scale of autonomy, where one is a fully autonomous human being, and zero is no autonomy, say a single-celled organism. Eight different species are discussed, concentrating on one or two well-studied examples from each, such as Koko the gorilla and Alex the grey parrot. Using standards of child development psychology, and the classic mirror self-recognition test (simply whether or not an animal can recognize that it is looking at itself in a mirror), an autonomy value is assigned to each.
For those not already well versed in the emotional and rational lives of animals, you will come away from each chapter with a new respect for the animal in question. Even the chapter on honeybees was filled with surprises. Most of us probably learned that honeybees can communicate through dances, but that they can disregard "nonsense" messages (there can't be nectar in the middle of a lake!) and their ability to apparently make collective decisions on new hive locations were truly surprising. And whose heart would not be broken by Alex the parrot's cry when left at the veterinarian for lung surgery: "Come here. I love you. I'm sorry. I want to go back."
Wise's reliance on anecdotes, while necessary, is both the book's strength and its weakness. In the chapters on elephants and orangutans, I doubt there exists a single story that I didn't read aloud to someone, anyone, who would sit still and listen. The elephant stories were mostly heart-rending, about broken family ties and emotional reactions to death. The orangutan stories, by contrast, were mostly of cleverly manipulating their human trainers and observers. The orangutans are so charismatic in fact, that Koko comes off a little dull by comparison, and the higher autonomy value given to gorillas relative to orangutans seems to be based on the gorilla's closer evolutionary relationship to humans alone. A little further justification for the higher rating would have been welcome.
But by the end of the book, what I wanted most was a list of rights and wrongs. I was completely convinced that animals should be granted dignity rights, and desperately wanted something to do about it. The stories about elephants in circuses were enough to keep me away from those, but should I now be avoiding zoos, too? What does it mean to respect the dignity rights of animals? What can I, as an individual do? Unfortunately, I'm really not the target audience for this book. However I wish that Wise would have acknowledged that it wouldn't only be judges and lawyers reading his book, and given the average citizen something to do with conviction surely acquired reading the book.
So maybe I was looking for a different sort of book when I picked up Drawing the Line. But if a manifesto is what I really wanted, I suppose I could always pick up some Jeremy Bentham or Peter Singer. Drawing the Line however, is excellent at doing what it does, which is laying a basic framework for the eventual adoption of dignity rights for non-human animals.(less)
Here's how much I loved this book. Within a week of finishing the copy I'd borrowed from the library (indeed, even before I'd returned said copy), I w...moreHere's how much I loved this book. Within a week of finishing the copy I'd borrowed from the library (indeed, even before I'd returned said copy), I went out and bought a copy of my own. Because I need this on my shelves. Why? Well, as someone with an M.S. in physics, and whose research appointment as in relativistic heavy ion collions, I'm more frequently called upon than most to explain things like the Higgs boson. But before a month ago, any such request would be met with a deer in the headlights stare and a lot of handwaving. My research was more interested in the quark-gluon plasma. So, the strong force. And it has been a very long time since I read The God Particle, okay?
So it's no surprise at all that when I saw this book in the New Books section of the library on my way to the poetry aisle, it stopped me in my tracks. And while it took me a while to get into it, once I did I really geeked out on it, telling friends about cool things I'd learned, asking my professional physics friends questions and doing additional reading on concepts I wanted to understand better. I did work for this book. I'm invested in it. Of course I want to own it now.
Like most books about an emerging concept in science, this one is presented as a history of the idea. Baggott introduces a whole host of key players, many of whom I was previously unaware of. The major players get brief histories and character descriptions as well, and as a result even some of the names I knew I now feel I know much more about. (And now feel I have a better idea which of the books on quantum mechanics on my shelves will be more interesting.)
If all you're looking for is a brief description of what the Higgs boson and Higgs field are thought to be, let me recommend the minutephysics channel on youtube. But if you want a wider survey on how did we get to this moment, and why is it important, I heartily recommend this book. (less)
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 plo...moreJust 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. (less)
So there's this story, that my microbiology professor once told about Leeuwenhoek. He was the first real master of microscopy. Others had invented the...moreSo 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.)(less)
Impulse buy at Tuesday Books in Williamston. Clearly the intersection between modern physics and religion is on my mind lately. This book is a collect...moreImpulse 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. (less)