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Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

I’ve never really thought much about the banana. I was terrified of them as a child, suspecting that there were deadly poisonous spiders concealed within each bunch. I’ve gotten a little older now, and occasionally enjoy them, but they’ve not really ever been on my mind until I read Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World that tells the reader all about its past, its present, and its future.

Dan Koeppel, the author of Banana, has a wonderful sense of humor throughout the book. He actually goes to visit banana plantations and other notable locations, such as Leuven, Belgium, the seat of banana research. I found his levity delightful; I like microhistories, but not those that take themselves so seriously as to squish the fun out of their topics.

The first thing Koeppel does that I think is great is explore how bananas most likely spread throughout the tropics. He makes the important point that plants, unlike us animals with our easily (in comparison) bones, plants are made of materials that don’t fossilize well. The path of the banana is a guessing game, one that has better odds now that there is genetic testing, but it’s still not perfect.

The majority of Banana, though, is spent discussing the more recent history of the fruit. I found it most interesting that United Fruit Company (what became Chiquita) allowed its competitors to survive only to avoid anti-trust lawsuits. The businesspeople behind the companies were something else — I think it’s incredible how ruthless the leaders of fruit packing companies were. You think fruit and you think happy, but that’s not often the case.

Koeppel talks extensively about the conditions on the ground in Central America. Workers were treated as if they weren’t human, but animals; when they tried to stand up for themselves, the fruit companies got the local (or American) governments to squelch the rebellions. The banana literally helped shape the way government functions today in Central America. How sad it is that it’s often a brutal and militaristic regime that’s in power.

Even more interesting is the disease that killed the banana type most eaten before the 1940s — the gros michel. It was not immune to Panama disease, but the Cavendish was. Thus, we now eat the Cavendish … but it’s not immune to all forms of Panama disease, only those found in Central America. The thought is that the banana will eventually die out like the gros michel, and it’s up to us to find another variety, create another variety (which is difficult with an asexual organism), or find a way to beat Panama disease.

Koeppel presents the banana in both a fun and a serious way, interspersing humor with gravity well. I think anyone who likes microhistory will enjoy Banana.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Filed under 4.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

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).

Musings

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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The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

I am a devoted Michael Shermer fan. I’ve read most of his other books — and enjoyed them a lot. Imagine my excitement when The Believing Brain came up as a possible advanced review book. I applied only for this one book, and I’m so glad I did. The Believing Brain is a wonderful introduction to how our minds make themselves up, then look for support for their conclusions.

Shermer breaks the book down into four parts. I feel it’s appropriate to explore the book based on the parts he’s decided to present.

Part 1: Journeys of Belief

Providing us with real-life case studies first, Shermer gives us a blue-collar gentleman whose experience one late night in the 1960s made him look for the otherworldly being he thinks visited him and gave him a message of love. This gentleman then took up philosophy and science, hoping to prove there is such a being.

The next gentleman Shermer discusses is a scientist who believes in God. He tells Shermer that he used to not have belief, and then, one day, he made the leap and became a believer. He sees evidence of a creator in the fact that he has a choice whether to believe. He thinks doubt is a chance to grow in one’s faith.

Then Shermer tells his story. Once a born-again Christian (by his own choice — his family was mostly secular), Shermer grew to see in college that his beliefs didn’t jibe with what he was learning.

I thought this part was somewhat interesting. I already knew Shermer’s story, but it was refreshing to read the stories of the other two gentlemen to see how they ended up on the other side of the belief table.

Part 2: The Biology of Belief

This was a really fascinating part of the book for me. Shermer discusses how the human brain is wired to find patterns — if we make a mistake on whether there is a pattern to a random occurrence, we don’t really suffer a consequence, but if we think things are unrelated when they actually are, then there’s a problem. We also tend to think there’s a cause behind things, which has aided our species to survive. I like the fact that Shermer provides us with these tendencies, because they’re helpful to keep in mind both when reading the book and when exploring one’s own beliefs.

Part 3: Belief in Things Unseen

This is the part that felt most familiar to me in the entire book. Shermer goes through several types of beliefs (e.g., belief in UFOs) and discusses the research on them. He explores the experiences of those who think they have had contact with or some other experience involving these “things unseen”, and then talks about the science behind those beliefs. I’ve read books, both by Shermer and others, that talk about similar things, but it’s always nice to be up on the latest science in the field.

Part 4: Belief in Things Seen

I loved this section of the book. Here, Shermer talks about facets of our everyday lives, like politics, and why we dig our heels in when confronted with a contrary tenet. He also talks about the history of astronomy to illustrate how even science can be affected by our set beliefs. I thought this was great. To show that science is, ultimately, something done by humans and is prone to human mistakes and tendencies is fantastic. How else are we to try to eliminate bias if we don’t acknowledge its existence?

Overall, I really liked the book. My only quibble with it (and for shame on me, after having read it) is that Shermer reveals he’s a libertarian. My cliché sirens went off! I really don’t think it’s something he necessarily had to share. The Believing Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how people decide on what they’re going to think, and then seek the evidence. I think we all need to be aware of that tendency, and also be wary of it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

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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Bellwether by Connie Willis

Bellwether

I looked forward to reading Bellwether.  I read Doomsday Book several years ago and really enjoyed it.  As I soon found out, however, Bellwether, while it is an enjoyable story, can’t be compared to Doomsday Book.  Their stories are too different and Connie Willis’ goals for the two books are far away from one another.  Still, Bellwether was a good way to spend a couple days; it’s a smart book with a clever plot and interesting characters.

Bellwether has a rather fun premise — a sociologist studying fads forms an unlikely partnership with a man studying chaos theory, and end up doing their study with a flock of sheep.  Sandra, our sociologist, is studying the fad of hair bobbing in the 1920s.  She works at HiTek, a science company — it literally has taken scientists from all fields, put them in one building, and now treats them like office workers.  There’s more pointless rules and hoops to jump through than any sane person should put up with.

Since they’re treated like office workers, they’re expected to fill in forms with the best of them.  When Bennett, our hapless chaos theorist, loses his funding forms (by turning them in to the person he was supposed to), he also loses out on his macaque money.  Sandra, who has developed an interest in Bennett due to his complete immunity to any and all fads, offers a unique solution — share funding by studying the movements of sheep — they’re less complex and easy to track for Bennett and are creatures who like to follow others for Sandra.

Mixed into this is the Niebnitz grant, an astronomical sum awarded to scientists considered to be doing work above and beyond their colleagues.  HiTek is determined to have a winner among their scientists, even if it means studying the past Niebnitz winners and manufacturing projects that match the pattern.

The most enjoyable part of this book is the interplay between Sandra and her employer, her coworkers, and the outside world.  She studies fads for a living, but she’s not exempt from having to experience them in real life.  The management always has new procedures (with a new acronym).  Flip, the irresponsible mail girl, constantly surprises Sandra with something new she’s wearing, saying, or doing.  Trends in food come and go, much to Sandra’s chagrin; she just wants chocolate cheesecake and iced tea.

There are, however, some problems with the book.  It feels a little slap-dash.  Maybe part of that is its length — it’s only 247 pages.  There is also a feeling of disconnection, to a certain extent.  Sandra’s job is fads, something that is inherently human, but it seems as if they are something she detests in personal life.  She appears to feel as if she’s above others, which is a little uncomfortable to read.  It’s not so great when the hero of the book thinks that most people are dumb.

Bellwether also contains what appears to be an obligatory romance between Bennett and Sandra.  It is particularly irritating to me because their behavior so clearly indicates their feelings, but those feelings aren’t acknowledged in the book until pretty close to the end.

Other than those couple of things, Bellwether is a perfectly pleasant read.  It was a fine way to spend my reading time for a couple of days, but I don’t think the story will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 3/5.

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Filed under 3/5, Book review, Fiction, Mixed