Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

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.


Posted in Autobiography, History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

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

E.M.D.R.: The Breakthrough “Eye Movement” Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma

Posted by nliakos on April 21, 2017

by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. & Margot Silk Forrest (Basic Books 1997, 2004)

EMDR stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing”.  The author, Francine Shapiro, “discovered” this technique and has developed it into a technique used by thousands of therapists around the world. I had never heard of it, but then, I am not a psychologist. The therapy consists of various parts and is performed only by people who have been specially trained in the techniques. The eponymous Eye Movement part refers to having the patient follow the therapist’s hand or (sometimes) a tapping noise (if the patient is very young or blind, for example) in a regular movement that mimics in certain ways the “Rapid Eye Movements” of REM sleep. Put very simply, Shapiro speculates that these rapid eye movements enable people to process memories normally. When a person “gets stuck” on a memory (as can happen if s/he experiences trauma, either large or small), the memory is not processed, or is incompletely processed, and haunts the person by way of flashbacks, nightmares, or even seemingly irrational behaviors. Directing the patient to remember the trauma while moving his/her eyes in a particular way seems to permit the “reprocessing” of the unprocessed memory, with a resulting desensitization; i.e., the patient is no longer bothered by the memory.

The many case histories were both heart-breaking and fascinating. EMDR is shown to have healed and/or helped people with PTSD; victims of rape, child abuse, phobias, and night terrors; the terminally ill; substance abusers and addicts; people mourning the loss of a loved one. . . . pretty much everyone you can think of, which is where my initial enthusiasm turned to suspicion. If EMDR is so effective in so many situations, why isn’t it a household word? Why isn’t it being used more widely? I want to believe that it is as effective as Shapiro claims, but it just seems to be too good to be true. Must investigate further!

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Posted by nliakos on December 31, 2016

by Christine Montross (Penguin 2007)

This book has been on my to-read list for years, possibly since it was published, but I could never find it. Finally, I bought a used copy. It was worth the wait. Christine Montross was a resident in psychiatry when the book came out; she based it on the journal that she kept during her first semester in medical school, when medical students study human anatomy by dissecting a human cadaver which has been donated for the purpose.

Montross describes the dissection and the feelings engendered by it; she adds a dose of history when she travels to Padua to visit the theater when the father of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, essentially began the practice of cadaver dissection for medical students; she explains that without donated cadavers, doctors and students used the bodies of executed criminals or bought cadavers which had been dug up at night, in secret–and sometimes actually did the grave-robbing themselves. But she remains convinced that no other method can replace actual dissection, saying that the woman whose body she essentially destroyed during that semester in anatomy lab gave her a precious gift: “. . . She neither knew me nor knew anything about me, and yet she bequeathed to me this offering, unthinkable for centuries, that has formed the foundations of my ability to heal. My hours with her neither cured her nor eased her suffering. Bit by bit, I cut apart and dismantled her, a beautiful old woman who came to me whole. The lessons her body taught me are of critical importance to my knowledge of medicine, but her selfless gesture of donation will be my lasting example of how much it is possible to give to a total stranger in the hopes of healing.”

The last part of the cadaver to be dissected is the head and brain. Despite their progress in with the emotional component of cutting up the body of a stranger, Montross and her classmates find it extraordinarily difficult to dissect their cadavers’ faces and heads. Montross writes, “The brain is the true embodiment of my own conflicted response to anatomy. Somewhere deep within its crenellations, here lies wonder, and here lies the question of whether we have a right to pursue wonder in seemingly inhuman ways. Here is the knowledge gained by dissection, which drives our actions forward, and here lies the toll the process takes on each of us, in stress or dreams or dissonance. Here in the brain is the newly transformed identity of the doctor-to-be, with a beginner’s knowledge of disease and healing, with a stomach more steeled to trauma and to death. But somewhere, too, there must be the echo of the person who existed before cutting a human body, before feeling the cool stiffness of a pulseless heart.” Montross’ prose is exquisite; I was not surprised to learn that she is a published poet as well as a doctor.

I don’t know why it was so hard to find this book, because I think every doctor in training should read it (probably before they take anatomy lab).

Posted in Memoir, Science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Violinist’s Thumb (And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code)

Posted by nliakos on August 13, 2016

by Sam Kean (Little, Brown & Co. 2012; ISBN 978-0-316-18231-7)

What with house guests and several other books, it took me over two months to finish this, which may explain why I remain confused about the roles of and differences between genes, chromosomes, and DNA in our genetic makeup; or maybe it’s just confusing stuff. Sam Kean writes about the history of genetics (important figures like Gregor Mendel, Baron Cuvier, and Craig Venter) as well as the science itself and what we can learn from it. Regrettably, I don’t remember the details! Kean’s style is conversational, slangy, and rather tongue-in-cheek.

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Leave a Comment »

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Posted by nliakos on June 20, 2016

by David Eagleman (Pantheon 2011; ISBN 978-0-307-37733-3)

In this excellent book, neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the question of who we really are, given that the conscious part of our brain is but a small part of the whole. He writes, “Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.” (p. 4)

That “massive engineering underfoot” not only runs our physical bodies (digestion, vision, reproduction, etc.) but also influences our conscious decisions in multiple ways, impacting who we are attracted to, what we choose to eat, what thoughts and ideas we have–pretty much everything, actually. As Eagleman writes, “Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control.” (p. 8)

He likens this realization to the “dethroning” of the earth as the center of the universe and the “dethroning” of humankind as the apotheosis of creation or evolution, yet he stops short of espousing materialism and reductionism–the assumption that everything about us can be explained by understanding our physical components (the “break-it-down-to-the-smallest-bits approach”). He keeps an open mind and urges his readers to do likewise.

The book begins with a retrospective of our understanding of the role of the brain (“There’s Someone in My Head, But It’s Not Me”), continues with an exploration of sensory perception with an emphasis on vision (“The Testimony of the Senses”), and goes on to examine the automaticity of habitual actions, like changing lanes while driving, as well as the hidden preferences behind racism, mate selection, career choice, and more (“Mind: the Gap”).

In “The Kinds of Thoughts That Are Thinkable”, Eagleman examines the limitations placed by our biology on our experience of the world and our ability to interpret it, and considers how one person’s perception can differ from the next person’s–if she is a synesthete, for instance, Tuesday might be magenta to her. Next, he explores the question of whether there is a true self and concludes that there is probably not, in “The Brain Is a Team of Rivals”; to quote Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes”, which explains our self-contradictory behavior. This chapter also considers the concept of being angry with oneself, making a deal with oneself, being ashamed of oneself, etc. Who is angry at whom?

“Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question” advocates for a justice system that stops exacting retribution for criminal acts and instead metes out sentences based on the modifiability of the criminal’s behavior and the prevention of future crime. Finally, “Life After the Monarchy” (remember “dethroning”?) sums up the book’s themes and posits that one can be more than just the sum of one’s parts. Eagleman presents a strong case that the answer to the “nature or nurture?” question is usually “both”, or in his words, “The future of understanding the mind lies in deciphering the patterns of activity that live on top of the wetware, patterns that are directed both by internal machinations and by interactions from the surrounding world.” (pp. 219-220)  (I love the term wetware for the human brain!)

It’s a very interesting, readable, and thought-provoking book.


Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Leave a Comment »

Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life

Posted by nliakos on December 5, 2015

by David Perlmutter, M.D. with Kristin Loberg (Little, Brown & Co. 2015; ISBN 978-0-316-38010-2)

Dr. David Perlmutter is a Florida neurologist, and he believes that much of what is wrong with us can be solved by bringing our microbiome–the “bugs” or bacteria that inhabit our digestive tract–into balance and keeping it healthy. Our unnatural diet and toxic environment, he thinks, are responsible for our sick and unbalanced microbiomes.

In Part I, “Getting to Know Your Hundred Trillion Friends,” he explains about the microbes that live within us, digest our food for us, and determine how we feel, and how much we weigh. In addition, he explains “the new science of inflammation”–how inflammation within our bodies resulting from out-of-balance microbiota can make us sick–and the apparent relationship of a sick microbiome with autism.

Part II, “Trouble in Bugville,” focuses on how our gut microbiota get sick and unbalanced when exposed to too much fructose (like HFCS), gluten, antibiotics, environmental chemicals, and genetically modified foods such as corn and soy.

Part III, “Brain Maker Rehab,” Dr. Perlmutter explains how we can cure our sick microbiome through changing what we eat, taking certain supplements, and avoiding certain environmental hazards. For example, he recommends eating more fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, pickled vegetables and meats, and kombucha tea, and filtering drinking water. He recommends taking docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), turmeric, coconut oil, alpha-lipoic acid, and Vitamin D as well as the following five probiotics: Lactobacillus platarum, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Bifidobacterium lactis, and Bifidobacterium longum. He includes a seven-day cleansing and eating program as an example, and offers recipes for recommended foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled sardines, fermented hard-boiled eggs, and kombucha tea. This was where he kind of lost me. I have been a vegetarian for over forty years, and I certainly do not intend to start eating meat or fish, fermented or not. And many of the recipes require sterilization of glass jars and lids. Never having canned anything, I have no experience with or equipment for sterilizing foods. It may be easy, but I worry that if I don’t do it properly, I could make myself sick.

I would prefer slowly decreasing certain foods and exposures while increasing others, but Dr. Perlmutter seems to want a complete makeover of lifestyle and diet. Perhaps he recommends this out of concern for his readers’ well-being; for me, it just makes it less likely that I will make changes at all. If one inflexibly implemented all of these changes, one could kiss eating out and entertaining friends goodbye.

Perlmutter’s claims seem logical and well-documented, although I am suspicious about any one thing that is held responsible for diabetes, autism, irritable bowel syndrome, Alzheimers, the common cold, and many more diseases and conditions. Furthermore, a quick Google search yielded this article from New York Magazine, which is scathingly critical of Perlmutter’s ideas. Caveat lector! (But read also the 70+ dissenting comments below the article.)

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Leave a Comment »

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal

Posted by nliakos on July 19, 2015

by Jared Diamond (Harper Perennial 2006; originally published by HarperCollins, 1992)

I’ve read several Diamond books by now (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Collapse; Why Is Sex Fun?), and there is a lot of overlap among them, but they are all fascinating and thought-provoking. Diamond is a geographer by profession, but his wide-ranging interests and expertise (from bird-watching to cultural anthropology to history to biology to linguistics and beyond) and his first-person experiences in more countries than one person would normally have the time to visit in a lifetime, let alone live and work in, make his books special.

This one is a complete examination of all aspects of human biology and history, including language development, genocidal behavior, adultery, substance abuse, art,  senescence, and the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. Diamond looks at human beings critically, compares them to their closest relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos), and asks whether this or that behavior hard-wired within us? Why do we do it?

For me, the most sobering chapter is the one on genocide, where Diamond  lists the appallingly many such events (he lists 37) that have taken place since 1492 and describes several in excruciating detail. Genocide is not, as we would prefer to believe unusual in our species. Nor is it unknown in other species, although our guns, germs, and steel give us the power to annihilate more people faster.


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

Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality

Posted by nliakos on May 14, 2015

by Jared Diamond (Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 1997; ISBN 0-465-03126-9)

In this very short (less than 200 pages) book in only seven chapters with titles like “The Animal with the Weirdest Sex Life,” “Why Don’t Men Breast-feed Their Babies? The Non-Evolution of Male Lactation,” and “What Are Men Good For? The Evolution of Men’s Roles”, Jared Diamond considers why human sexual behavior is so different from that of most (but not all!) other animal species, in that ovulation is concealed, intercourse is not limited to fertile periods, females experience menopause, and men’s penises are larger than they need to be. He considers where humans fit on the spectrum of promiscuity, monogamy, and harems. He discusses different strategies for fertilization in use throughout the animal world. He postulates that perhaps the reason for menopause is that it allows women some years unencumbered by childcare during which they can finish raising their own children and help raising their grandchildren, and function as knowledgeable elders in their family or tribe. Like a book that describes a reader’s native culture, allowing him or her to really notice it for the first time, this book helps readers to view human sexuality from a more objective vantage point and to wonder about how it came to be as it is. Diamond is just speculating, but he leads the reader to speculate with him; it’s interesting.

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2015

by Joshua Foer (Penguin 2011; ISBN 978-1-59420-229-2)

Reading this book, I learned a lot that I didn’t know (always a good thing!). Chief among these is perhaps the fact that before people wrote things down, printed them in books, and saved them in digital format, they did not just naturally have better memories than we do; they learned and practiced techniques that enabled them to remember better. These techniques have mostly been lost to us (blame Gutenberg), but have been revived by a small group of memory experts who practice memorizing things like random numbers, poetry, and the order of cards in a deck, and compete among themselves. These techniques include things like the “person-action-object” system, or PAO, in which the memorizer commits to memory a set of images corresponding to two-digit numbers; for example, Pele kicking a soccer ball. This allows him (most of them seem to be male) to generate a memorable image for each six-digit number (Hillary Clinton talking to a soccer ball). It’s vital that the number be visualizable and unusual (thus memorable). Using this system, memory buffs (some are called “grand masters”) can, with practice, learn to remember any number from 0 to 999,999. (Why you would want to do this is another question.) The point is, there are tricks to remembering stuff, and they can be learned and practiced.

(Another interesting thing I did not know is that the human brain is very good at spatial memory and quite poor at remembering things like phone numbers, passwords, historical dates, and instructions; this is why memory champs employ “memory palaces” (mental images of places they know very well) in which to position their images so as to retrieve them in order without forgetting any.)

Joshua Foer begins with attending the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship as a science reporter, and he eventually devotes a year to learning and practicing memory techniques so that he can compete in the next championship (I will not divulge the outcome!). Along the way, he digests a lot of information about memory, learning, intelligence, education, history, chick sexing, savants, and more, and passes it on to his readers, making for a fascinating read.

We generally assume that the invention of the printing press, and indeed, the invention of writing itself, has been a good thing; Foer points out that all those external memory devices have their cost. In one of my favorite sections, he quotes Plato quoting Socrates quoting the Egyptian king Thamus (in Phaedra), to whose people the god Theuth offers a writing system which will improve the people’s memories. Thamus declines, saying, If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on what is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men. (pg 138) Which is pretty much what happened. Foer observes later that progressive education has made school more interesting and pleasant for children, but in so doing it has left us without the shared memories that enable us to “partake of a shared culture’. He continues, The people whose intellects I most admire always seen to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready. They’re able to reach out across the breadth of their learning and pluck from distant patches. It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory, . . . but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand. . . . The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. . . . The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it. (pgs 208-209)  That is certainly true.

However, after all that practice, Foer points out that although he could memorize certain kinds of things (generally ordered lists of something) much better than he had been able to previously, he did not remember other kinds of things (like where he had parked his car, or even a series of colors) any better than he had better.  And he very quickly returned to the practice of using external memory aids (post-it notes, to-do lists, cell phone address books) after his year on the memory circuit. But he also believes that a bigger benefit of that year’s training has to do with being mindful and learning to notice things. What I had really trained my brain to do, he writes at the end, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you notice.  (pg 268) This brought to mind something someone said on a TV show about forgetfulness that I once saw: it isn’t so much that we forget stuff, but that we never bother to remember it in the first place. It never makes it into our long-term memory.

I could not help remembering, as I read the book, that the reason I started my reading blog, back in 2006, was because I forgot what I had read so quickly after I read it. Apparently, I am not alone in this, in a world in which quantity (how much you read) is more valued than quality (how well you understand and remember what you have read). There is much to be said for questioning our assumptions about reading, understanding, knowing, and remembering.

P.S. Yes, Joshua Foer is Jonathan Safran Foer’s brother. I googled it.

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