Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

One Man’s Owl

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2020

by Bernd Heinrich (Princeton University Press 1987)

I picked this up at Wonder Book in Rockville because it reminded me of Wesley the Owl, which I loved. One Man’s Owl is more academic than Wesley; Heinrich is a zoologist at the University of Vermont. But the relationship between Heinrich and “his” owl Bubo is not terribly different from the relationship of Wesley and his “girl”, except that in that case, the owl clearly came to see his rescuer as his mate, whereas that is not clear in the case of Heinrich and Bubo (whom Heinrich never definitively sexes despite his use of masculine pronouns).

Heinrich is pretty obsessive about recording all the birds, insects, small mammals and other tidbits he finds dead on the road, killed by his wife’s cat, or captures alive and offers to Bubo. A Great Horned Owl is a master predator and a carnivore, so if you are raising an owl, you have to keep it fed. Still, I could have done without the details of furry little mammals and songbirds eaten by Bubo.

Heinrich illustrated the book himself with really beautiful pen-and-ink drawings of amazing detail, of Bubo and of other species.

Both books make clear that living with an owl is all-consuming. Not a part-time occupation!

Posted in Biology and environmental science, Memoir, Non-fiction, Pandemic Lockdown, Science | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2020

by Michael Pollan ( Random House 2001, 2002)

I have really enjoyed Michael Pollan’s books about eating, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food , and I try to follow his food rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants, with their corollaries such as Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients. (See the post for In Defense of Food for all the details.) I’ve been intending to read this one for years, and I got my chance when my sister gave it to me for Christmas. Thanks, Sis!

Like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is divided into four parts, each of which corresponds to a meal, The Botany of Desire‘s four chapters focus on four human desires (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control) and four plants which fulfill them (the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato). The over-arching idea echoes a concept Pollan expressed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma–that plants use people, like bees, to spread their genes. In that book, it was corn that has somehow gotten humans to rid most of the American Midwest of all other competing species to its own advantage, with the result that we grow so much of it that we are forced to invent new markets for it (ubiquitous sweetener of other foods, automotive fuel…). In the present book, Pollan describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes have taken over whole landscapes far from their places of origin. In so doing, he educates the reader with interesting facts. For instance, all commercially available apples are grafted clones; apples do not come true from seed. In fact, tulips are similar in this respect: “Tulips are prone to . . . chance mutations, color breaks,  and instances of ‘thievery’ (the tendency of certain flowers to revert to their parents’ appearance).” and “A tulip that falls out of favor soon goes extinct, since the bulbs don’t reliably come back every year. . . . Tulips, in other words, are mortal.” And the apples planted by John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman were used not for eating but for making (hard) cider, which stood in for most other alcoholic beverages in the American Midwest.  of his time.

Throughout, Pollan ruminates on the contrasting myths of Apollo (analytical, linear, controlling, rational. . .) and Dionysus (natural, chaotic, untamed, violent, sexual. . .):  “Johnny Appleseed”, a kind of gentle Dionysus. . . .  Marijuana, providing a Dionysian intoxication (“nature overpowering mind”). . . . “Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together.” This occasionally seems a little far-fetched, but adds an intriguing perspective.

In the final chapter, Pollan shines a bright light on the issues raised by genetic engineering, such as the inadvertent spreading of the doctored genes through the natural dispersal of pollen; the privatization of natural resources such as the natural insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt); the evolution of pests to resist Bt and other insecticides (a question not of if, but of when); and the control of farmers by agribusinesses such as Monsanto. He describes the dead soil in which most of our food grows, compared to the living multi-cultural living soil on organic farms: “. . . the typical potato grower stands in the middle of a bright green circle of plants that have been doused with so much pesticide that their leaves wear a dull white chemical bloom and the soil they’re rooted in is a lifeless gray powder. Farmers call this a ‘clean field,’ since, ideally, it has been cleansed of all weeds and insects and disease–of all life, that is, with the sole exception of the potato plant.” In contrast, the organic farmer’s soil “looked completely different from the other Magic Valley soils I’d fingered that day: instead of the uniform grayish powder I’d assumed was normal for the area, Heath’s soil was dark brown and crumbly. The difference . . . was that this soil was alive.” For the first time, I understood deeply why we should prefer organic produce over the cheaper alternative.

As always, Pollan does not disappoint.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2020

by Joan Maloof (Univ. of Georgia Press 2005)

I loved, loved, loved this book! It’s a collection of essays about trees, forests, and the other things that live in, on, under, and among them, written by a forest ecologist and emeritus professor of biology and environmental studies at Salisbury University, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (the part of the state that lies east of the Chesapeake Bay on the great Delmarva Peninsula). The essays mostly focus on the trees in this part of the world, and since I live on the other side of the bay (estuary, actually), most of the trees discussed are also to be found near my home (except the Bald Cypress): the tulip poplar, sycamore, pine (though maybe not the loblolly pine Maloof writes about), various oaks, maple, holly, and sweet gum–not sure about the black locust, redcedar, or beech (but having checked these out online, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are probably here, just unrecognized by me). But I felt as I read that Maloof was writing about my trees, my forests, my environment. It felt very personal. She writes about trees with love and respect for these incredible life forms, and includes the tiny animals that feed and shelter in the forest, like weevils, beetles, gnats, luna moths, borers, midges and leaf miners and wasps and more. She describes her efforts and those of others to protect trees from the crush of man’s embrace (from Laurie Lewis’ “The Wood Thrush’s Song”). Successes are rare, but somehow, she holds on to hope, and accordingly, so do I. To think about trees is to hold the long view of life on earth. Maloof points out that homeowners on the Eastern Shore sometimes go to a lot of trouble to plant trees on their newly acquired properties, when all they need to do is wait a few years for a young forest to propagate itself on its own because the land there naturally reverts to forest if left to its own devices. That’s a comforting thought.

Gorgeous 200-year-old illustrations by artist/naturalist John Abbot are interspersed throughout the pages of the book. They appear without captions, forcing the reader who does not immediately recognize the leaves in the image to look back at the list of illustrations which follows the table of contents. I was tempted to pencil in the species’ names on the facing pages, but I decided that would encourage laziness. If I leave them unlabeled, perhaps I will learn to recognize the leaves I don’t already know. I’ve long wished I could identify more trees.

One of the illustrations is of the chestnut oak. This tree grows in the state park adjacent to my neighborhood, where my husband and I often walk. I’ve wondered about those leaves: shaped like large teardrops with multiple indentations along the edges (what Wikipedia calls coarsely crenately toothed leaves). But I was unsure of my identification until I read Teaching the Trees. An added benefit!

Now that I’ve finished the book (I devoured it like a mystery), I kind of want to reread it from the beginning. I’ve already begun to forget all the neat things I learned! For example: Maryland has about 8,000,000,000 trees, 95% of which are less than five inches in diameter; only 2% are as wide as a woman’s shoulders.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, Science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).


Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics, Religion, Philosophy, Culture, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein–Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

Posted by nliakos on August 25, 2019

by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster 2013)

I’m a little confused by the title of this book. It is about mistakes made by great scientists, but it was the scientists who were brilliant, not the mistakes. And I don’t see how the mistakes changed our understanding of anything. They were just mistakes. Scientists are human beings, after all; they do make mistakes. Isn’t that how the scientific method works? Scientists learn from their mistakes. In some cases, maybe they didn’t, because they died before the knowledge they would have needed not to make the mistake became available.

Anyway, that’s just the title. The book is pretty clear that it’s about mistaken ideas of various scientific heroes:

  • Charles Darwin, who failed to take into account Gregor Mendel’s ideas about heredity (of which he was apparently unaware, and according to Livio, incapable of understanding the mathematics involved in any case). He “made do” with the wrong concept of “blending heredity”, even though he was not satisfied with it.
  • Sir Charles Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who believed that the Earth could not possibly be as old as geologists of the time claimed it was, and he stuck to that story until the end of his life, even though his own calculations were pretty effectively disproved by then.
  • Linus Pauling, whose faith in his “alpha-helix” model of DNA led him to reject the double-helix model of Francis Crick and James Watson, which turned out to be the correct one. One reason for this was that he never saw Rosalind Franklin’s “photograph 51”, which revealed the double-helix quite clearly. Also, he stubbornly ignore the fact that his nucleic acid molecule wasn’t even an acid, revealing a “disregard for some of the basic rules of chemistry”.
  • Fred Hoyle, who supported the concept of a steady state universe over the Big Bang Theory which is now I think universally accepted. Again, a lack of exposure to the thinking of another scientist, in this case the Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaître, who had the misfortune to publish a seminal paper in an obscure Belgian journal. Had Hoyle been aware of Lemaître’s paper, he ostensibly would not have made the error that he made. Again, a lack of crucial knowledge resulted in a mistake.
  • Albert Einstein, who added a “cosmological constant” (Λ) to his Theory of General Relativity, then rejected it as unnecessary, while physicists around the world refused to allow it to die a natural death.

What struck me the most while reading the stories of these scientists and their mistaken ideas was how little scientists work in a vacuum. Rather, they are constantly in touch with one another, using the ideas and calculations of others to inform their own. I knew this in the abstract, but Livio’s book provides countless examples of interactions among scientists without which fundamental scientific ideas would likely never have been conceived, and several of the “blunders” were caused by a missed interaction: a paper not read, a photograph not viewed.

Livio makes a valiant attempt to explain the science to a lay person, but I still found a lot of it incomprehensible. This is not the author’s fault; the concepts (in biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology, and geology) are difficult, and I don’t have even a basic grounding in them. (Well, I took high school biology and an introductory geology class in college, so I understood those a bit better, but the physics, astrophysics, and chemistry had me flummoxed.)

He also speculates about why these brilliant scientists made the mistakes they made, whether due to denial, lack of information, over-confidence, reluctance to embrace something new, or sheer stubbornness.

The book is well-researched and interesting (to the extent that I could understand it), although not a page-turner.

Posted in History, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Signature of All Things

Posted by nliakos on January 29, 2019

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the first of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels that I have read, although I read and enjoyed both Eat, Pray, Love and CommittedThe story of Alma Whittaker consumed me for days; I loved it.  The story takes us from Alma’s birth in 1800s Philadelphia to self-made tycoon Henry Whittaker and his dour, no-nonsense Dutch wife, Beatrix (with a long detour to describe Henry’s childhood in England, his travels with Captain Cook, and his rise to wealth in the New World).

Alma is not a pretty girl, but she is exceptionally intelligent and blessed with a wonderful memory and a gift for taxonomy. She receives an excellent education and is encouraged to pursue her interest in botany. As she grows older, she becomes an indispensable part of the family business (botanicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.), but she is not lucky in love. She falls in love first with her friend and publisher, George Hawkes, but he marries her silly friend Retta. Then she falls in love again with botanical painter Ambrose Pike, who comes to stay and work at White Acre, the Whittakers’ sumptuous estate in Philadelphia. It seems as though Ambrose returns Alma’s affection, but not in the way she had hoped. With Ambrose banished to Tahiti, Alma struggles with grief and depression at White Acre, as her parents grow older and die, leaving everything to her. But her entire life is called into question by a family servant, Hanneke, who forces Alma to realize the sacrifices that were made for her by others. Alma decides to leave White Acre behind and to strike out on her own for Tahiti, leaving the estate and the business interests to her sister, to try to find the explanation for Ambrose’s behavior.

Tahiti is completely life-changing for Alma, who had never traveled farther than Trenton in her entire life. She learns there to let go of things and to relate to people in entirely new ways. She is about to give up her quest for answers when the person who can tell her what she needs to know suddenly appears before her. She then travels to Amsterdam, to her mother’s people. On the long voyage home, accompanied only by a mangy Tahitian stray dog, Alma begins to write down her theory of competitive alteration, but she is not entirely satisfied with it and is therefore reluctant to publish it. It is several years later that she hears about, and then reads, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. She realizes that she has lost her opportunity to publish her groundbreaking theory because she hesitated for so long. She feels a special kinship with Alfred Russel Wallace, who likewise came up independently with the idea that natural selection, as Darwin called it, is responsible for species differentiation.

Alma Whittaker is a memorable character, a woman of great intelligence, integrity, and passion, with the courage to confront her life, with its privileges and challenges, head on. By the end of the novel, I both admired and loved Alma. Other characters–Alma’s parents, her sister Prudence, Ambrose Pike, the Reverend Welles and his adopted son Tomorrow Morning, Alma’s uncle Dees van Devender, and others, come alive as one reads. In addition, reading this book is like reading a history of science in the 19th century. Fabulous.

My favorite chapter is the seventh, which describes how 16-year-old Alma discovers how to pleasure herself from a book in the White Acre library. The first time she locks herself in a closet to experiment is the day George Hawkes, the botanical publisher, and the insufferable Professor Peck are dinner guests. During the dinner, Alma finds it impossible to concentrate on the conversation, and Prudence joins it for the very first time, arguing coolly with the opinionated professor on the subject of racism. It is wonderfully funny.

A few favorite quotes:

On learning of Ambrose Pike’s death: The news hit Alma with all the force of an ax head striking granite: it clanged in her ears, shuddered her bones, and struck sparks before her eyes. It knocked a wedge of something out of her–a wedge of something terribly important–and that wedge was sent spinning into the air, never to be found again. If she had not been sitting, she would have fallen down. As it was, she collapsed forward onto her father’s desk, pressed her face against the Reverend F. P. Welles’s most kind and thoughtful letter, and wept like to pull down every cloud from the vaults of heaven.

On nearly drowning while in Tahiti: Then–in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all–Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life,she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature–the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation–and it was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

On composing her theory of competitive alteration: To tell this story–the story of species transmutation, as demonstrable through the gradual metastasis of mosses–Alma did not need notes, or access to the old library at White Acre, or her herbarium. She needed none of this, for a vast comprehension of moss taxonomy already existed within her head, filling every corner of her cranium with well-remembered facts and details. She also had at her fingertips (or, rather, at her mind’s fingertips) all the ideas that had already been written over the last century on the subject of species metamorphosis and geological evolution. Her mind was like a terrific repository of endless shelves, stacked with untold thousands of books and boxes, organized into infinite, alphabetized particulars. She did not need a library. She was a library.

Posted in Fiction, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Posted by nliakos on November 15, 2018

by Deborah Blum  (Penguin 2018)

The “one chemist” of the title is consumer advocacy pioneer Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who headed up the Bureau of Chemistry at the Department of Agriculture from 1882 to 1912. Wiley fought to protect American consumers from mislabeled, adulterated, dangerous foods and medicines for his entire adult life. But The Poison Squad is not just about Wiley; it is also the story of his many allies (e.g., Willard Bigelow, lead chemist for Wiley’s early research into common food additives like sodium benzoate; and Henry J. Heinz of ketchup fame, who was an early advocate of preservative-free foods) and enemies (e.g., John Queeny, founder of Monsanto and a staunch defender of the unlabeled use of saccharin in food; and James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and Wiley’s boss, who often caved to industrial demands and suppressed Wiley’s findings and reports). (Blum helpfully provides a 9-page alphabetical cast of characters at the beginning of the book–I wish that all non-fiction writers did the same!) Scientists and journalists, novelists and cookbook authors, politicians and suffragists and consumer advocates on the one side, and industrialists, bureaucrats, different politicians and even presidents on the other–a great battle was waged for many years over the regulation of America’s food and drug supply. Interestingly from our perspective, around the turn of the 20th century, Democratic and Republican roles were reversed. The Democrats were the bad guys, supporting industry demands to be able to freely adulterate foods to cheapen production and increase profits, while the (progressive) Republicans were on the side of consumer safety.

Though the politics has changed, that battle continues today. Just one example is saccharin, one of the deleterious additives targeted by Wiley a century ago, which is still readily available on supermarket shelves now despite the finding that it “has a physiologic effect . . . in every place, in every cell.” (It was briefly banned in the 1980s but was unbanned in 2000.) Despite convincing scientific evidence, the food industry has continued to fight for the right to poison the public, as long as it increases their profit margin.

Wiley focused both on banning harmful substances in food, drinks, and medicines, and on truthful, complete labeling and advertising, so that consumers could know what they were buying and ingesting. He was also a dedicated feminist. He married late in life (not for lack of trying, but his wife, Anna Kelton, refused him when he first proposed, when she was in her late twenties and he about twice that). He was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s political activism in the suffragist movement. (Favorite quote, when Anna was arrested and jailed for political activity: “He had fought all his life for a principle and hardly could deny her the same privilege.”

Wiley was uncompromising in his zeal to clean up the food supply and get rid of false claims about medicinal properties. Time and time again, he courageously stood up to his boss (and to his boss’s boss, the President) and to his numerous detractors and opponents. One cannot help but admire him.

Reading about the long years of struggle before the first Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the ensuing struggle over writing and enforcing the regulations, I was reminded of the seemingly never-ending struggle for gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association plays the role of the food industry executives who shamelessly attacked those who were trying to protect the public. Organizations like MomsRising and Every Town for Gun Safety and individuals like Jim Brady and Gabby Giffords and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students play the roles of Harvey Wiley, Alice Lakey, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens and so many others who refused to admit defeat despite numerous losses. The only way to combat this incessant greed, it would seem, is to persist, no matter how long it takes. Once the legislative battle is won, however imperfectly, we must gear up for the regulatory battle. And with Donald Trump in the White House, even regulations that have long been in place to protect consumers are being rolled back to the detriment of consumer safety and to the delight of the  industrialists (such as gun manufacturers and food/beverage/drug industry tycoons). The fight against the food and drug industries is never over, as Blum shows in her Epilogue. We must be forever vigilant.

This book is a fascinating and educational read. I highly recommend it, but I would advise you not to read it over lunch!

Posted in Biography, History, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Selfish Gene

Posted by nliakos on November 3, 2018

by Richard Dawkins (Oxford Univ. Press; originally published 1976; 40th Anniversary edition ed. 2016)

This one is a Darwinian classic and has been on my list for many, many years. It is pretty dense and long but is written in a very clear way, avoiding mathematical and scientific terms (or explaining them over and over). The basic premise is that natural selection works not at the level of the organism but at the level of the gene, which replicates itself endlessly so that any gene, at any moment, is present in many (billions? trillions?) organisms. Genes are “selfish”; that is to say, their goal, if they can be said to have a goal (they can’t, really) is to survive, at the expense of (or with the cooperation of, if that works better) their fellow genes. Individual organisms such as plants, fungi, or animals, including humans, are the “vehicles” or “survival machines” which the genes build to carry themselves into the future.

Ch. 1, “Why Are People?” Dawkins introduces the book by saying it is a statement of his belief of how living things evolved. It is not about morality, and it does not describe particular animal or human behaviors in detail. The concepts of selfishness and altruism, which are central to the book, are introduced.

Ch. 2, “The Replicators” A quick and dirty explanation of DNA, chromosomes, and genes. I’ve always been confused about whether chromosomes are parts of genes or vice versa (it’s vice versa). Errors during replication (i.e., mutations) lead to natural selection.

Ch. 3, “Immortal Coils” More about the replicators, basically, adding the concepts of  nucleotides and cistrons (smaller bits than in the previous chapter, if I am not mistaken), as well as the concept of crossing over, which means swapping chromosomal bits. A gene is defined as “any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection.” These two chapters are the toughest for the non-scientist reader.

Ch. 4, “The Gene Machine” Working up in size to animals, the vehicles for genetic transmission and survival. Behavior is “a trick of rapid movement”. Muscles are “gadgets to achieve rapid behavior”. Neurones (nerve cells) time movements. Communication is simply a type of behavior controlled by neurones. Astonishing fact: An axon is a long wire-like part of a nerve cell that, while microscopically tiny in width, can be as long as the neck of a giraffe!

Ch. 5, “Aggression: Stability and the Selfish Machine  The crucial concept of the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy or ESS: a strategy that, if adopted by most members of a population, proves superior to other strategies. Natural selection penalizes deviation from the ESS, which results in stable polymorphism, or an equilibrium of varied types in the gene pool. Addresses the issues of rivalry (and why animal rivals usually do not fight to the death), retaliation (behavior dependent on that of one’s opponent), and territorial defense.

Ch. 6, “Genesmanship” Reminder that a gene is not a single bit of DNA but all the replicas of that bit of DNA, wherever they are found (i.e., in whichever bodies they are “sitting”). Altruism can result from selfishness due to shared genes. (W. D. Hamilton calculated the probability of shared genes in a population.) Some altruistic behaviors, e.g., parental care, are advantageous to survival. (An animal must survive long enough to reproduce and must have lots of offspring for genes to be successful.)

Ch. 7, “Family Planning”  Bearing offspring and caring for them are separate behaviors. Most animals regulate their birthrates, and genes for the optimal number of young will eventually win out over genes for too few or too many young. In territorial animals, control of a territory can grant males “permission” to breed. Males without territories may never breed. Some attention is given to the problem of human over-population: leaders who forbid effective contraceptive methods “express a preference for ‘natural’ methods of population limitation, and a natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation.”

Ch. 8, “Battle of the Generations”  “Parental Investment” (R. L. Trivers), or more accurately, “Altruism Investment” (Dawkins) refers to how many life resources an animal will invest in its young or other members of its family or group. Some young are better risks for a parent to invest in than others (e.g., runts). Addresses the issues of sibling rivalry (including fratricide) and parasitic bird behavior like cuckoos laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. Discusses how offspring may (unconsciously) manipulate their parents, forcing them to feed them by screaming, which attracts predators to the nest. Dawkins points out that altruism must be taught, as it does not come naturally.

Ch. 9, “Battle of the Sexes”  Mated pairs may cooperate to raise young, but they are naturally inclined to try to exploit one another. It is common for one parent to leave the other to raise the young, and whereas with animals that breed by copulating it is usually the male that runs off, leaving the female to bring up the young, with water-dwelling animals where the male fertilizes the eggs once they are released into the water, it is often the female who skips town, leaving the male to care for the young. It depends on who has the first opportunity to escape.

Animals where parents share the burden do so in response to genetic programming that has been determined to lead to a more successful outcome. In this case, females often try to spot signs that a potential mate will be faithful or not before they consent to mate. Different strategies for choosing a mate: “domestic bliss” or “he-man”. Females can be coy or fast, while males can be faithful or philanderers. Characteristics like the heavy tail of a bird of paradise or a peacock can demonstrate to a female that the male is strong enough to survive despite dragging around all that extra stuff behind him. What makes one animal male and the other female? It boils down to the gametes (sex cells): female gametes are larger (because they contain nutrition to feed the embryo) and fewer, while male gametes are tiny, more numerous, and faster. The optimal sex ratio is 50:50.

Ch. 10, “You Scratch My Back, I’ll Ride on Yours”  Interactions between different species or members of a population, including alarm calls and how they probably develop in a population of prey animals, and symbiosis, such as slave-holding, aphid-milking, and fungus-gardening ants, kamikaze bees, and grooming behaviors.

Ch. 11, “Memes: The New Replicators”  It turns out that Dawkins coined this popular term in this book. A meme is an element of human culture which can spread through a population just as a gene can. Memes can be pieces of language, music,  fashion, ways of making things, etc. God is a meme. (The musical oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach would constitute a “meme-complex”.) Memes replicate through imitation and are passed on in altered form, continuously mutating and blending. They can replicate much faster than genes.

Ch. 12, “Nice Guys Finish First”  Finally, the role of altruism in the success of certain genes. Dawkins uses Game Theory to explain that animals cooperate with each other because cooperation (“niceness”, “forgiveness”) leads to a more stable survival strategy. A group of strategies called Tit for Tat (only defect in retaliation for another’s defection; if the other cooperates, you cooperate as well) is the most stable of all. Dawkins has plenty of animal and also human examples of how this works, even using it to explain the cooperation between Allied and Axis troops during World War I (the famous Silent Night in the trenches being only one example).

Ch. 13, “The Long Reach of the Gene”  I suppose that this chapter was not part of the original publication, because Dawkins explains that it summarizes another book he wrote called The Extended Phenotype (1982). A phenotype is a physical manifestation of a gene, like eye color, skin color, or (I suppose) a propensity to do well in mathematics (just conjecture here). The idea is that genes can influence things beyond the body they are in; for example, a beaver is programmed by its genes to build dams, thus transforming its environment. The beautiful stone “houses” that the larvae of the caddis fly construct to protect their soft bodies are another example, as are, I suppose, the constructed landscape that humans build for themselves.

Dawkins also addresses the questions of why genes teamed up in cells, why cells teamed up in multi-cellular organisms, and most interestingly, why the lives of multi-celled animals begin and end with a single cell, a fertilized egg (a “bottle-necked” lifestyle). As Dawkins writes, “Really, I’d almost rather you stopped reading now and switched to The Extended Phenotype!”

Epilogue to Fortieth Anniversary Edition  Dawkins considers whether he would make major changes to The Selfish Gene and concludes that, except for a less inflammatory title (he suggests The Immortal Gene might have been better received and is also more poetic), he would not; current knowledge of gene structure presents no challenge to his ideas as long as his definition of gene is understood (Cf. Ch. 3).

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Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

Posted by nliakos on July 25, 2018

by Dame Daphne Sheldrick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

I had never heard of Dame Daphne nor of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, but apparently, in the community of advocates for African wildlife (and in particular, elephants and rhinos), they are very well known. Following a harrowing accident when she failed to recognize one of “her” grown-up orphan elephants and instead got too familiar with a wild elephant, Dame Daphne decided to write her memoirs: “This will be my legacy. I will set down everything I have learned in my efforts to contribute to the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife in this magical land.”

A native white Kenyan (her grandparents immigrated from South Africa, though her family originated in Scotland), Daphne grew up on a farm where she already showed an inclination to love and care for the wild animals that were so numerous, in addition to the dogs and cats and other domesticated animals on the farm. At seventeen, she married a man who worked for the Kenyan National Parks as an assistant warden. His assignment to Tsavo National Park put Daphne in close contact with Park Warden David Sheldrick, who was to become her second husband and soulmate.

For me, by far the most interesting parts of the narrative, however, are the parts about the many orphaned animals that Dame Daphne (with her husbands’ and daughters’ help) rescued and returned successfully to the wild. I think it is well known that wild animals who are reared by humans have a hard time surviving with their own kind in the wild; many never make it. But Dame Daphne’s orphans, time and time again, given the freedom to decide when and how they would rejoin their wild cousins (with some limitations due to age), were almost always able to reintegrate successfully (although they were of course subject to the same dangers and risks as their wild cousins once they had reintegrated). One important factor in this success for the many elephant orphans she raised is that when they were no longer dependent on milk, they were given over to the care and tutelage of the elephant cow Eleanor, herself a former orphan, who raised and returned so many orphans to the wild that I lost count.

Along the way, Dame Daphne was the first person to figure out what kind of formula could be used to save infant elephants. She also raised many other kinds of orphaned animals, including rhinos, warthogs, and many different types of antelopes, from the tiny dikdiks to elands and kudu. Amazingly, Eleanor accepted all of these different animals into her motley family. A lot of cross-species friendships were formed–not only humans with wild animals, but rhinos with zebras and water buffalo, antelopes with elephants, and more. There are photos showing Dame Daphne’s young daughters feeding the orphans and riding on a rhino. She tells of welcoming the orphans into her house and sometimes actually in her bed! Having believed all my life that wild animals can never be trusted, I was astonished at how gentle these animals were with Sheldrick and with her children (although they were often mischievous, especially when they were young). Her deep love for all animals and the special bonds she cultivated with her elephants are a joy to read about. Elephants are amazingly similar to humans in so many ways, especially when it comes to their emotional lives. They seem to lack our penchant for violence, though–at least among their own kind.

In addition, she explains the Mau Mau revolution in Kenya in the fifties, the issues related to Kenyan independence in the sixties (included the impact on the National Park system), and the ongoing fight to save African wildlife from poaching. An absolutely fascinating read.

Update: I googled Dame Daphne Sheldrick and discovered to my sadness that she passed away only a few months ago, on April 12, 2018. I also found this documentary, which tells the story of both Dame Daphne and her elephants and of Birute Galdikas and the orphaned orangutans that she raises in Borneo. Unfortunately, the video is full of annoying ads, but if you can ignore them, it’s really interesting to watch.

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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on June 2, 2017

by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books 2014)

This is the companion book to the PBS/BBC collaborative series of the same name. I missed that back in 2014, but I’m inspired to watch it now, because the book was really interesting. It shows, for example, how the discovery of the special properties of silicon dioxide led to the invention of window glass, eyeglasses, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, fiberglass, even the World Wide Web. Johnson writes that when we snap a selfie and upload it to the Internet, we usually don’t think of “the way glass supports this entire network: we take pictures with glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.”

And that’s just Chapter 1! In addition to Glass, Johnson has chapters dedicated to Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light.  In each chapter, he follows the development of concepts and technologies related to the theme. He explains how most new technologies are invented by several people working at similar times (“in clusters of simultaneous discovery”), and that inventions are developed on the backs of previous ones.  He discusses the concept of the adjacent possible, a kind of discovery zone of possibilities that is normally present when an innovation is being incubated; without it, the innovation would be unthinkable. And he connects the dots to show us how each innovation clears the way for further innovations, like how solving the problems of waste disposal and clean water made possible the existence of mega-cities (which are not necessarily a good thing, but that’s another issue).

In the final chapter, “The Time Travelers”, Johnson introduces us to some exceptions to the ideas of simultaneous inventions and the adjacent possible: Charles Babbage, who essentially invented the computer in the 19th century, and his younger friend Ada Lovelace, who saw in Babbage’s invention the possibility of its uses beyond mathematics. Johnson writes in awe, “To have this imaginative leap in the middle of the nineteenth century is almost beyond comprehension. It was hard enough to wrap one’s mind around the idea of programmable computers–almost all of Babbage’s contemporaries failed to grasp what he had invented–but somehow, Ada was able to take the concept one step further, to the idea that this machine might also conjure up language and art. That one footnote opened up a conceptual space that would eventually be occupied by so much of early twenty-first-century culture: Google queries, electronic music, iTunes, hypertext. The computer would not just be an unusually flexible calculator; it would be an expressive, representational, even aesthetic machine.” Then he points out that when the time was finally ripe for this to actually happen, no one would remember either Babbage’s Analytical Engine or Lovelace’s vision of how it might be used, and they had to be re-invented by others.

A fascinating book for both science and history buffs! I am looking forward to watching the series.

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