Tag Archives: popular science

Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Having read Cod, I was expecting Four Fish to follow in Mark Kurlansky’s tradition of the microhistory. Sure, maybe this one talks about four fish, I thought, but it’ll still be really meticulous, detailed, and contain almost more information than you’d ever want to know about the topic. Paul Greenberg surprised me by being both focused and able to bring me the big picture in a wonderfully cohesive and intelligent way. He doesn’t write his books like Kurlansky, but he doesn’t have to. He’s capable of producing something that’s just as subtly informative in his own way.

Since the book is called Four Fish, let’s take them one by one. The first is salmon. Greenberg discusses the drop in wild salmon populations, colored by a trip to Alaska to see a fishing operation that runs by the graces of the government. He also talks about the farmed salmon industry, which is where I got my first exposure to the amount of energy it takes to produce a pound of fish. Some fish are not very efficient at using the resources available to them, and quite a few of those are the first ones we’ve picked for domestication.

Greenberg next exposes us to sea bass, another fish people are trying to domesticate. He talks about the guidelines Francis Galton put forth for domestication (hardiness, an inborn liking for man, comfort-loving, be freely breeding animals, and easy to tend), and then discusses how sea bass, a favorite fish food for the Mediterranean peoples — and then much of the rest of the world — doesn’t fit any of these criteria. I found it interesting that researchers have put a lot of effort into fish that are so hard to tend. The process for sea bass started in Israel and then spread from there, and scientists have gotten remarkably far considering that they are such difficult fish.

Cod is where things get really interesting. First of all, Greenberg has the Mark Kurlansky come and taste cod from wild and farmed sources, which I thought was just great. Kurlansky actually picked out the wild cod as one of his favorites; pretty cool when someone can do that! Wild cod stock has, with the rest of these four fishes’ populations, declined wildly. What I found fascinating was that, while there are people trying to farm cod, there’s already some fish that are readily domesticated and require fewer resources — like tilapia (my mother’s favorite). I found that fascinating, and Greenberg talks about how the name recognition (or lack thereof) goes a long way toward whether a seafood is going to be accepted by the public.

The last fish is the tuna. Tuna is the top predator in its habitat, meaning that they are long-lived and take a long time to recover from population drop-offs. One interesting fact about tuna and its consumption in Japan that Greenberg shares with us is that the Japanese found it too fatty to eat before the American occupation, and only developed a taste for it during that time. Tuna also have a counterpart that are a better choice for domestication — the kahala — and eating these fish would allow tuna stocks to replenish.

I really liked how Greenberg wound his story about how we’re damaging fish stocks through some interesting interactions with scientists and fishermen. The best part, though, is that he found fish that fill the same niches as these staple ones — and do it better. For drawing in a vegetarian whose only caught seaweed (and been happy about it), I think Greenberg deserves some credit.

Rating: 4/5.

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Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould

I have to love Stephen Jay Gould. I like most popular science writers, like Carl Sagan, but how many title their books so that the library clerk comes back with a surprised look on his face? He said to me, “It’s a little thicker than I was expecting.” It was about the thickness I was expecting, and I enjoyed every page of it. Gould has a way of writing about evolutionary science that makes it approachable without dumbing it down.

Gould breaks the book down into several sections, so I’ll talk about each section in turn.

The Scale of Extinction

The book starts out with several essays on modern extinction. I thought he spoke particularly well about the dangers of human-introduced flora and fauna, giving the example of land snails on the south Pacific island of Moorea being killed off by African tree snails. I think it’s an important topic (what with living in Michigan with the fear of Asian carp coming into the Great Lakes), but I also like that he discussed the difference between the wiping out of a particular population as opposed to the extinction of a species. He discusses how unique populations don’t necessarily warrant protection against human encroachment, which I thought was interesting.

Odd Bits of Vertebrate Anatomy
This section contains the eponymous essay. It discusses the history of how vertebrate toes have been viewed — for a long time, it was thought that five was the original number … and then came along older fossils with animals with seven and eight toes. I love how this shows that “scientific certainty” has the potential to change on a dime because of new evidence and new thinkers.

Gould also uses this section to talk about errors Darwin made in his writings. He reminds us that judging Darwin by our own standards leads to knee-jerk reactions without taking into account the times, and he makes the argument that, while some of his thoughts on human behavior and development are racist by today’s standards, they were an attempt to make sense of the world through the nineteenth century’s lens. I liked that essay a lot; it reminded me that my grandchildren will think I have all sorts of old-fashioned and biased ideas, and not to judge too harshly until you see the entire picture.

Vox Populi

Gould breaks this up into two sections, but I’ll just treat it as one big group. Here he talks about the true spirit of scientific inquiry, giving the example of his father, who honestly tried to understand concepts that were blurred for him by the sniping back and forth of two authors of different books on the same topic. I thought it was provoking; I liked the fact that he made me think about whether I can respect and trust what someone says based on authority — indeed, it hammered home that logical fallacy for me.

I also loved his article on Bishop Ussher. This is the man who said that the world started in 4004 B.C. Gould explores how he got that date — and provides the reader with a genuine way to respect the man’s technique (though not the motivation or the end result).


This is also in a couple of sections. Gould talks about how fallible memory can be while exploring one of his own false memories, and he also discusses authenticity, which I found especially interesting. How odd it is when something is taken out of its proper context, or when a replica is put in its place. Gould gives the example of London Bridge, which was disassembled, shipped to America, and then reassembled for display. That’s not nearly as awesome as seeing it in its original setting, and I get what he’s saying. If we don’t have the right context for something, it won’t make sense, and, worse, it won’t invoke interest or curiosity. Artificiality deadens the imagination — and I think he’s right.

Human Nature

Gould here talks about the human brain and the nature of genius, with Mozart as the example. Mozart wrote amazing music at a tender age, but remained the same developmentally in every other category. I liked that he pointed this out; smart people (or talented people) are not supermen. They’re normal except in specific ways, and we all have our high points.

We also get to hear about the branching of primates. How sad it is to learn that we aren’t a successful part of that lineage — too few primates to view it any other way — but that does make us precious, I suppose.

Grand Patterns of Evolution

This was probably my favorite part of the book. There’s one section that talks about creatures that had hard parts that fossilized easily that were once thought to be individual species because of the lack of any connecting material. It took until someone found a rare fossil that preserved soft tissue that it was known to be one larger creature! I thought that was great, and also very much in the spirit of this book — science is fallible and science is changing. Neat!

Revising and Extending Darwin

Here, Gould discusses the changes evolutionary theory has gone through. I think this is important information — we all know about Darwin and his ideas, but how many of us know the amount of tweaking those ideas have gone through? Gould talks about his own idea of punctuated equilibrium (although I’m not sure he actually ever uses the term), which states that things change little during down times, and then explode during times of great catastrophe or environmental upheaval. He also discusses neoteny,which is one of the few things I remember from my psychology classes in college — mainly because I think it’s a clever little tool evolution developed.

Reversals — Fragments of a Book Not Written

One of my favorite concepts is in this section. At one point, a species of clam was thought extinct because there were no fossils found of it after a certain point in the strata. Then they were found in the 1800s, alive, in Australian waters. Here Gould drives home the point that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. How could it be? You can’t prove a negative — you just have to hope that you’re going in the right direction, and if there are exceptions, that you can accept them.

Overall, I love Gould’s writing. It shines with a humor and feels researched without being tedious. I think anyone interested in natural history or the history of science would love Eight Little Piggies.

Rating: 5/5.

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Death by Black Hole: and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Let me just get this out:  I love Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I’ve enjoyed watching him on television and have read a couple of his other books.  He’s my favorite astrophysicist.  I’ve even gotten my fiance to start watching Nova scienceNOW with me, which makes me beyond happy.  This book also makes me beyond happy; Tyson makes astronomy and physics delightful to read.

Death by Black Hole is composed of essays Tyson originally wrote for Natural History.  They’ve been broken up into sections, which is in keeping with the greats of popular science writing — it’s definitely what Stephen Jay Gould did with his books, and those are almost unfailingly fantastic.

The first section, “The Nature of Knowledge,” contains essays about how we gather information about the world around us.  As a geography nerd, I loved his explanation of how something that seems as simple as measuring the length of a border becomes more complex when you adjust the scale at which you’re looking at it, as well as your rules for what to do about curves, tides, and other things that can affect a border.  It all fits in with the concept of measurement, and how it works differently depending on your tools, your intent for the result, and the time and culture in which you live.

The next section, “The Knowledge of Nature,” discusses what we do know about how things work.  The section on antimatter and subatomic particles was particularly good.  They’re such weird concepts that I love to read anyone’s description of them, and Tyson’s particularly enjoyable.

“Ways and Means of Nature,” the third section, discusses how nature appears to us.  Tyson discusses constants and limits found in nature, which are interesting to know about.  He also discusses how the work of people like Newton still contains practical, useful concepts and rules.  This is nice; I like knowing that my high school physics hasn’t all gone out of style.

The fourth section, “The Meaning of Life,” has information about how life started on Earth and how it might start other places.  This is probably one of the more controversial sections.  People vary widely in their opinions on both topics, but, in my opinion, Tyson gives a nice rundown that seems very reasonable.

The most entertaining section is next.  “When the Universe Turns Bad” contains his essays on how people, Earth, and the Sun can be destroyed by outside influences.  He also talks about what it would be like to fall into a black hole (not so awesome), have Earth hit with a large meteor or asteroid (also not awesome), and to be hit with massive amounts of gamma radiation (surprisingly enough, not awesome).  It’s a fun section, in a morbid sort of way.

“Science and Culture” is all about people, how they perceive science and nature, and how often they get it wrong.  One particular essay that made me laugh was how movies get science wrong.  I found this entertaining for a couple of reasons.  The first was that Tyson said he hates people who say, “the book was better,” because he often doesn’t read the book — the movie’s more condensed!  The second reason was that, for Pete’s sake, it’s a movie.  As long as it’s not egregious, can’t you suspend disbelief for two hours?  That essay was still entertaining in the way he intended it to be, but I also thought it was cute for those other reasons.

Lastly, we have “Science and God.”  While Tyson doesn’t come right out and say that science and religion are incompatible, he does mention that God has become the answer for the gaps, which I think is very true.  The more we know about nature, the less God is responsible for and the less he’s needed in a creator role.  He’ll always be needed for comfort and faith; that’s just a fact.  But he’s not very effective as a causative factor regarding the physical universe and all it contains.

My only complaint with Death by Black Hole is that sometimes Tyson’s humor doesn’t come through as he intends it to.  Sometimes he sounds grumpy, which I don’t think he is.  I think he just has a subtle or wry sense of humor that doesn’t translate very well on the page.  Having seen him many times in many different appearances, I’m able to gauge his intent a little better than a reader coming to him for the first time.  It’s unfortunate that’s the case, and is the only thing that kept me from giving the book a perfect score.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes by Stephen Jay Gould

I’m going to make an embarrassing confession:  when I was a teenager, I attempted to read one of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections and didn’t quite make it through.  I think it was the baseball; something about it turned me off.  Now, twelve years later, I lament not having tried another of his books while younger.  I recently read The Mismeasure of Man and thought it was brilliant.  Now I have read an actual book of his shorter works, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

First off, Gould writes with an amazing balance of intellectual integrity and approachability.  His essays have a hint of humor, which he uses to help the reader through the material.  The topics, even though the book is thirty years old, can be complex for those who don’t have a basic understanding of natural science.  I found his treatment of subjects I knew were really clear.  This made my confidence in my comprehension of the new stuff he presented me with pretty high.

That said, the structure of the book is composed of sections that deal with different subjects: “Sensible Oddities”; “Personalities”; “Adaptation and Development”; “Teilhard and Piltdown”; “Science and Politics”; “Extinction”; and “A Zebra Trilogy”.  Let’s take them one by one.

“Sensible Oddities” contains essays about the strangeness of some aspects of nature.  Gould starts off by presenting us with animals like the anglerfish family, the males of which some species become permanent attachments of the females, becoming little more than a source of sperm with a heart.  He then discusses how these weird characteristics are beneficial adaptations to the species — anglerfish live in the deep and dark ocean, a swathe that is sparsely populated.  From the female’s perspective, an attached gentleman is most likely easier than having to look for him again when you become sexually receptive.  I love how he uses these examples to gently explain how evolution works.

“Personalities” is all about founders of scientific work.  This section will never go out of date, since it’s discussing people who worked in the past to build our current understanding of biology, geology, and related scientific fields.  Gould doesn’t talk about the expected giants in a fawning manner; rather, he discusses their good points and bad, and how they created a framework for the scientists of today to add to.

“Adaptation and Development” is a section that might be considered dated.  The essays here talk about how genes and their expression were debated at the time.  The idea of the selfish gene — and more moderate alternate theories — for example, as an explanation for the replicated sections of DNA that make up a great part of the genome.  I haven’t read extensively on the subject, but I think there are more developed theories now.  That’s not a fault of the book, though — just a fact of the world moving on while the printed word stays the same.

The most fascinating part of the book for me was “Teilhard and Piltdown”.  I knew the basic story of Piltdown Man, the half-human, half-ape skull conglomeration found in a gravel pit in England.  It’s a fraud — hate to burst anyone’s bubble.  I had no idea, however, about the men behind the lie, and I loved reading about Teilhard, the French-born Catholic clergyman who most likely was a willing part of the fleecing of the scientific community for forty years.  His story is an interesting one, somewhat sad and sympathetic at the same time.

I also really liked “Science and Politics”.  The fights detailed within about evolution and its teaching in schools — both historic in the Scopes trial and the then-current fight in Arkansas — are the same ones waged over the same topic today.  It feels like the scientific community is Sisyphus, getting so far and then having to run back down to catch the stone as it slides to the bottom down into Intelligent Design territory again.  No matter how things change, they seem to stay the same, at least as far as the struggle with creationists goes.

In “Extinction”, Gold discusses some theories on how extinction works.  He uses the size of candy bars in one essay to explore how they might “die out” at each increasing price point.  He also talks about the catastrophic theory for how the mass extinction in which the dinosaurs, among other creatures, died out.  That’s a little dated, too; the research is pretty firm on that one now, but Gould presents it as a likely but fairly new idea still in the early stages of development.

Lastly, “A Zebra Trilogy” uses the example of zebras to explore relative closeness of species to one another, how embryonic development can be used to answer questions about adult animals, and how sometimes science can work backwards, getting the idea first and fitting the data to that idea, and how this is detrimental to all of us.

Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes is a wonderful collection.  It’s on a subject I like a lot, and written by a phenomenal popular science author.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Now I just have to atone for my teenage sins and read more of his books.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are by Joseph LeDoux

I am extremely interested in how the brain works.  After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and before starting my master’s (in fields unrelated to brain function), I worked for a professor examining fMRI scans, which piqued an already healthy interest in the brain and mind.  Almost everything written on the topic for a lay audience will eventually end up in my hands.  Synaptic Self seemed especially interesting to me — who doesn’t want to know how the brain creates the self?  It’s one of the fundamental questions of life.  Unfortunately, I got to this book about seven years too late.

The science in Synaptic Self is engrossing and amazingly complete.  Joseph LeDoux walks the reader through the physical set-up of neurons, how they communicate with one another (both individually and en masse), and how genes and behavior alter the pathways our brain cells make.

LeDoux doesn’t dumb down the science, which is awesome.  It also could easily become confusing.  For example, many of the diagrams in the book include abbreviations that don’t really make sense.  In one case, when explaining the roles the amygdala and the hippocampus play in stress, the caption text calls cortisol “CORT”.  Not a huge deal, but, first of all, why did the word need abbreviation, and second of all, why would you bother if the actual diagram uses “cortisol” in every instance of its use?  There were many occasions where I had to go back and reread a part to make sure I got what he was saying.

I don’t really feel like the book got to a point where I could relate to what LeDoux was expressing until he got to the section on people with mental disorders — schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders.  I’ve had experience with those, I’ve done research on them, and learning about how scientists used the information he tells us about in the previous chapters to develop understanding and, from that, treatments, was fantastic.  I didn’t mind the rehash because he told the story well.

I’m also not convinced he makes his point in the best way.  I got his main idea, but felt let down, to a certain extent.  Our selves are made of the connections our brain cells make between each other.  They use genes to know where to go, vaguely, and then use input from the environment to learn where to go, specifically.  Varied tasks, interwoven, make us react in certain ways.  A lot of what we do is hidden from conscious experience.  And … that’s us.

This is the crux of my dissatisfaction:  I’ve heard most of this before.  I went through psychology courses in the early to mid 2000’s, and, yeah, I learned that aspects of personality are not all genes and not all environment.  I get that genes set you up with tendencies, and that your experiences influence how your individual brain ends up working.  All the content of this book is stuff most people who are interested in the topic will have already heard from other sources a long time ago.

This isn’t really LeDoux’s fault.  He wrote the book in 2002, when research in this field was relatively new.  And, for a book that was near the ground-level of a new point of understanding the brain and the self, it’s pretty good.  I just wish it had been a little more approachable and that I had reached it earlier.

Rating: 3/5.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Having read Stiff, Mary Roach’s book about the corpse and what living scientists and people do with them, I anticipated Packing for Mars was going to have some humor mixed in with incredible stories about space exploration.  I was especially excited by this for several reasons: I like popular science books; I liked Stiff; and I love astronomy and space exploration.  Roach doesn’t disappoint.  Packing for Mars shows us some of the behind-the-scenes planning of our space programs, goofs and all, and creates a very readable account of the development of a branch of science very new and very much a part of many cultural identities.

In fact, Roach starts off her book not with NASA or cosmonauts but with JAXA, Japan’s space organization.  She takes us there to show us one of the processes that comprises how Japanese astronauts are chosen; they’re put in a room with nine other hopefuls for a week.  Their eating behavior is monitored, their interpersonal skills are evaluated, and their work ethics are examined (in a rather clever way).

This is one of the enjoyable parts of Roach’s book — she got to go to lots of cool places and talk to a lot of interesting people.  Astronauts and cosmonauts abound, as do psychologists, engineers, space program managers, and nutritionists, among others.  Roach has a true gift for putting herself in the interview without being obtrusive about it.  It’s enjoyable to read the accounts of, say, a research subject from a study of what happens if people lay in bed and don’t use their bodies to move around, but it’s even better to get Roach’s observations on the person’s surroundings, their manner of carrying themselves, their way of speaking.  She’s astute, and that eye for detail adds a lot to the book.

In fact, Packing for Mars feels very much like her exploration of the story of space exploration, which is probably my favorite aspect of the book.  It’s obvious that she’s done a lot of research and a lot of digging.  The amount of work she does to track down interesting stories is pretty impressive — from reading old newspaper articles about the primate-space program to trying to track down a Czech porn star who appeared in a film that supposedly featured a scene in a zero-g plane, Roach has her bases covered.

Having done all this research shows.  For the geek in me, I was delighted to see that there was actual science behind the humor and the entertaining stories that make up the history of space exploration.  Roach talks about what researchers do to find out what might happen to the body, for sure, but she also talks about the underlying biological and physical concepts underlying why these things happen.  It’s even better that she does it in an accessible and humorous way.

A couple of writing techniques Roach uses endears her books to me.  One is puns and plays on words.  I’ll always admire a clever pun.  I don’t care what other people think about them.  I like them and admire those who can craft good ones.  Roach has a talent for language control that makes hers very organic; they almost slip by you before you recognize the.  Another charming aspect to her writing is the use of footnotes.  I’m a sucker for footnotes — thus one reason I love Terry Pratchett.  Roach includes some great asides in hers, and I looked forward to pages containing them.

There’s no resisting a book with both science and comedy on its side.  Factor in that the book is well-researched and well-written, and I’m completely won over.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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