Review 1534: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

Bill Bryson started out writing travel books that were notable for his humor and the many factiods and interesting stories he told about the places he visited. I imagine him with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything.

More recently, he has tackled other subjects, and his newest book is about the human body. In this book, he approaches the body system by system to explain what it does and how miraculous it is. As usual, he relates stories about the various people who made discoveries about the body and includes lots of factoids.

This book is entertaining enough, but it wasn’t the book for me. I have a personal black hole when it comes to subjects such as health and medicine (also religion). Although I was mildly interested in it and found lots of passages to read to my husband (who is interested in that kind of thing, although not religion), I decided not to finish it. I think it is a good book, though, for those who are more interested in the topic or like lots of interesting facts.

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Day 957: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Cover for Packing for MarsScience writer Mary Roach seems to be attracted to unusual subjects, as indicated by her previous books on the science about cadavers, the afterlife, and sex. She would seem, in fact, to be in large part attracted to subjects that others would think unpleasant, at least judging from Packing for Mars.

Roach starts out tamely enough by exploring the differences in how astronauts are chosen by the Japanese versus Americans. Then she logically moves into discussions of past research into the psychological effects of space travel and life without gravity.

Eventually, she gets down to the nitty gritty, for example, designing food for space, but also more, shall we say, earthy topics, such as waste disposal, farting in space, sex in zero gravity, and so on. Indeed, the chapter on food dealt largely with shit, which, since that was the subject of the previous chapter, was a bit too much.

Packing for Mars is well written, interesting, and sometimes amusing. It is perfect for people who like little factoids or like to dabble in science. It would not be my choice for reading normally (it was a book club choice), and I confess I got a little tired of descriptions of floating turds, and so on.

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Day 855: Submergence

Cover for SubmergenceSubmergence is at once an intellectual novel and a gritty novel. It is about two characters who are submerged in different ways.

James More, an English spy, has been captured by jihadists in Somalia and is being held captive. Danny Flinders is a mathematician studying the patterns and diversity of life in the abyss. She is on a scientific expedition to study volcanic vents at the bottom of the Atlantic off the coast of Greenland.

The two are linked by a romantic encounter at the Atlantic Hotel on the coast of France. During the period of a few days, they fell in love.

In the filth of his captivity, James distracts himself by musing about some of the ideas he’s learned from Danny about the multiplicity of life, about what he knows of Islam, about his ancestor who was once swallowed by a whale, and other thoughts. The text is challenging—full of facts and floating with ideas. Both characters are in danger, but their ideas seem more important than the conditions they find themselves in.

Here was a situation where reading the Kindle version really took me by surprise. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was in the book and suddenly I was at the end.

This novel keeps you at a certain distance from its characters. Still, you want to know what happens and to consider the characters’ ideas.

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Day 752: The Ascent of Man

Cover for The Ascent of ManThe book The Ascent of Man is a companion piece to the 1970’s era TV series. The introduction to the book states that the series was an answer to Kenneth Clarke’s famous Civilisation, which left out the accomplishments of science. Author Jacob Bronowski was a well-known mathematician, biologist, and science historian.

Bronowski begins this book with our ape relatives and a discussion of evolution, but he really gets into his subject after man has moved from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle. His contention is that nomads do not have the time or energy to innovate.

The book takes us through a series of the most important discoveries for the improvement of human life and understanding. These include the combination of copper and tin to make bronze, mathematical discoveries, the Copernican system, the Scientific Revolution, and so on up to the double helix.

As the book is so obviously the script of a program, there are some frustrating times when it refers to an image that certainly appeared on TV but not in the book. On the other hand, the illustrations in the book are many and beautiful.

Of course, since the book was written in the 70’s, it is a little dated. One example is that Bronowski frequently comments on how slowly animals evolve, but I believe this idea has been reconsidered.

Because the discussion of the concepts is very brief, there were times when I felt Bronowski was implying a lot more than he described. That is, his greater understanding of the topic interferes a bit in his simple explanations. So, even though I watch a lot of science programs and usually have no trouble understanding them, I felt sometimes as if the explanations of the more difficult subjects have too much left out. Still, for someone who wants to learn basic information about important scientific discoveries up to the middle of the 20th century or is interested in the history of science, this is a good place to start.

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Day 669: Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

Cover for Death by Black HoleA Quick Note: I just now published a new feature for my blog, an additional link called “List of Authors,” which lists all of the authors reviewed on this site and all their books. This new page will make it easier for people to find more books by authors they enjoy. Look for it at the top of the page!

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Death by Black Hole is a collection of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essays from Natural History magazine. In general, I’m not that fond of essay collections because just when I want an author to build on a point, the essay is over.

Tyson is always good, though, at explaining complex ideas in a way that a science novice like me can understand. He is also frequently amusing, funny enough for me to occasionally read passages out loud to my husband. Some of the pieces are probably written solely to provide amusement, like the one about the scientific errors in sci-fi movies. But he also includes essays about the creation of the universe, climate change, particle physics, cosmic curiosities, and the interface between science and the public.

If I can repeat a point, though, I think I would have appreciated even more a book that explained principles and then took me farther with them. Instead, by the nature of the beast, the essays are sometimes a bit repetitive, although none of them cover exactly the same ground.

I was really looking forward to the chapter on “intelligent design,” which is a sore point with me. But even though Tyson is clear that this is not a scientific viewpoint, his essay is a bit too tactful for my taste. At this point I would have appreciated some zingers.

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Day 641: Remarkable Creatures

Cover for Remarkable CreaturesRemarkable Creatures is based on the true stories of Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning. These were two women of the early 19th century who collected fossils along the sea near Lyme Regis, beginning before fossil collections became wildly popular. Some of their finds resulted in discoveries about evolution and extinction. The novel is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of the educated upper-class Elizabeth and the uneducated working-class Mary.

Elizabeth Philpot already realizes she will be a spinster when her newly married older brother nudges her and her two sisters to look for a less expensive place to live away from the family home in London, perhaps in some genteel seaside resort. The women choose Lyme Regis, and their brother soon finds them a comfortable but small stone cottage.

Louise Philpot becomes interested in gardening and Margaret busies herself with the town’s social scene, but Elizabeth realizes she must find something to occupy herself. When visiting a carpenter’s shop, she meets Mary Anning, at the time a child, and sees the fossils Mary has collected and is trying to sell. She is fascinated particularly by the fish and decides to look for fossils herself, doing much to help label herself and her sisters as eccentric.

Mary Anning finds and sells fossils to support her family, but she is also fascinated by them. After she begins her acquaintance with Elizabeth, she starts learning more about the scientific theories behind her work. When she discovers the fossil of a previously unknown animal, she does not know that her discovery challenges the beliefs of conventional religion that every animal created by God is currently alive on Earth.

Philpot and Anning, who made significant contributions to the science, both eventually find themselves frustrated by the lack of recognition for their contributions. It is worse for Mary, for she is not only a woman and uneducated, she is considered just a fossil hunter.

I found the subject matter of this novel interesting but feel Chevalier was probably struggling with the difficulties of depicting real people in fiction. Although she depicts two distinct women, they do not seem fully formed to me. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with the wonderful The Signature of All Things, which is a similar story although completely fictional. There I got a sense of a strong, fully realized individual. To contrast, Chevalier gives each of her main characters a few signature traits—for example, Elizabeth judges people by what part of their physique they “lead with”—and we don’t get a sense of fully formed individuals.


Day 504: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Cover for The Power of HabitI borrowed The Power of Habit from the library because it was mentioned in an advice column and because I have some habits I would like to change. Its conclusions are based on solid research, but my main criticism of the book is that it is exactly one of those management books I have learned to despise. I guess I should have known by the inclusion of the word “business” in the subtitle.

What characterizes these books is that they have very little actual content. They usually make a few points, no more than 10, and the lack of substance is disguised by filling the book with anecdotes and repetition. As some of them are very popular, I guess business managers haven’t figured out that one example doesn’t prove anything.

Unlike most of these books, this one at least is full of notes and other evidences of an actual basis in research. However, its emphasis is on changing habits in a business environment or community. Only the first few chapters, which are admittedly interesting, and the appendix have much useful application for an individual.

If you are interested in the neuroscience behind the conclusions in this book, you can probably find more in-depth information in its source material, which is abundant. The actual content of the book only takes up 286 pages, with the same concepts and simple illustration repeated endlessly, and the final 100 pages devoted to notes, source material, and an index.

If you are simply interested in this subject, the book is well written and easy to understand. Note that all of the raves on the back cover are by authors who write exactly the same kinds of books.

Duhigg is obviously talented, as he is a writer for the New York Times and a contributor to some serious news magazines. I would like to see him tackle something of substance.

Day 473: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Cover for The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksIn 1951 an African-American woman died of cervical cancer in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins, founded as a hospital for the poor. Her doctors had routinely removed cells from her unusually virulent cancer. The cancer was fast acting and when the woman died, her body was riddled with tumors. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and her cells have been used ever since for research and experimentation, resulting in many medical breakthroughs.

At that time, scientists had been trying to find a way to preserve cells, but all their attempts failed. None of the cells lived more than a few days. At Johns Hopkins the staff used their usual method of attempted preservation for Henrietta’s cells with little hope of success. Henrietta’s healthy cells died like the others, but not only did the cancerous cells survive, they reproduced dramatically.

Henrietta’s cells helped solve a fundamental problem in biological and medical research, that of having a supply of human cells readily available for use in various experimental studies. George Gey, the head of the department, immediately began shipping them to any scientist who needed them. Henrietta’s cells, called HeLa, are known and used throughout the world.

In the meantime, the Lacks family was completely unaware that Henrietta’s cells were in use. An impoverished family of little education, they had difficulty understanding the use the cells were put to when they did learn about them, which wasn’t until 1973. Even at that time, researchers at Johns Hopkins took further samples from the family without their informed consent. Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, understood them to be performing a test for cancer, not medically available at the time. Even though the removal of Henrietta’s cells was commonplace in the 1950’s and did not break any medical code of ethics, at the later time that further samples were taken from the family, this was certainly not the case.

In clear prose, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks’ cells and their uses in the biomedical industry but also the story that has hitherto been neglected, that of Henrietta herself and her family. The book brings up issues of racial discrimination, medical ethics, and other issues in biomedical research, such as cell contamination. It also affectingly tells the story of the Lacks family.

Day 449: The Signature of All Things

Cover for The Signature of All ThingsBest Book of the Week!

I was not really eager to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago for my book club, especially the pray part. But I discovered writing that was comic and intelligent and a story that was much more interesting than I expected.

In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert turns to fiction to tell the story of the life of a remarkable woman. Alma Whittaker is the daughter of a man born in poverty, the son of a frutier for Kew Gardens. Determined to become a wealthy gentleman, Henry Whittaker as a boy steals cuttings from the gardens to sell, and after he is caught, is dispatched by Sir Joseph Banks to gather plants on several voyages of discovery, including Captain Cook’s last.

Eventually, Henry breaks from Banks to start a pharmaceutical industry in Philadelphia. He marries a Dutch wife from a family of botanists and builds a series of greenhouses filled with plants from around the world.

Alma spends her childhood roaming the woods around her house and becomes a brilliant botanist but an unattractive girl and woman, tall and ungainly. She is much better with plants than with people, and when her mother Beatrix decides to adopt the beautiful orphaned daughter of a local prostitute, Alma is never able to develop a sisterly feeling for Prudence.

Although Alma spends much of her life there on her father’s estate, it is nonetheless an exceptional one, as she develops her own professional reputation, and eventually she ends up traveling farther than she ever expected she might. Gilbert takes time with her—time to develop her into a complex personality.

The course of her life takes a fateful turn when she encounters Ambrose Pike, an artist who has been living in South America and has painted the most beautiful pictures of orchids she has ever seen. Ambrose is of a spiritual turn of mind. He believes in the “signature of all things,” an old idea that god has left his imprint on everything on earth so that man will know its use. Although Alma, as a scientist, understands the fallacies in this notion, she finds she loves the man. But he has ideas about the pursuit of human perfection that she doesn’t comprehend.

This novel is beautifully written, completely different from Gilbert’s first book except for being a voyage through a human heart. I became fully engaged with Alma’s story. I grieved with her over her romantic disappointments and was impressed by how she snapped herself back into a productive life. This novel is an enthralling and satisfying story of an early woman scientist, about how a lonely but determined woman makes her own place in the world. Although Alma is not really a lovable person, Gilbert is able to make readers understand and care about her.

Day 445: Annals of the Former World: Crossing the Craton

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the final short book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee examines the craton, the flat land that lies in the central Midwest of the continental United States. If you have read my reviews of the other books, you might remember that McPhee wrote each one about a separate geologic area near I-80, along which he traveled with different geologists telling the story of the formation of the country. Each of those four books was published separately, but Crossing the Craton was added when the complete volume was published, perhaps for completeness. (I think it was published separately at a later time.)

Because there are few outcroppings in the Midwest, little can be seen of the rock underlying this area, a thin veneer over the basement rock that comprises 90% of geologic time.  McPhee explains that until very recently this basement, or Precambrian, rock was neglected in geology texts. Because Precambrian rock by definition has no carbon in it from living things, carbon dating was not available. Nothing was known about the rock.  For a long time it was thought to have been there since the creation of the earth, but that idea has been found to be incorrect.

Just in the last 40 years or so, new kinds of dating methods and other technological advances have allowed geologists more insight into what is going on beneath the surface in these older rocks. Gravity maps have revealed a huge tectonic rift, for example, that runs from eastern Nebraska through Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and under Lake Superior, where it joins one rift shooting north into Canada and another running right through Michigan. This three-pronged rift is similar to the one that runs down the Red Sea to meet the rift in the Gulf of Aden and the East African Rift, only that one is much younger.

In this book McPhee explains how the Canadian Shield and the central portion of North America were mostly likely created. He also looks at recent technologies such as zircon dating and aeromagnetic mapping, and speculates on the discoveries about the basement rock that could emerge in the future.

Although this is the shortest book in the volume, more the length of an essay, its emphasis on technology makes the subject matter of lesser interest to me than that of the previous books.