BOOK REVIEW: Methuselah’s Zoo by Steven N. Austad

Methuselah's Zoo: What Nature Can Teach Us about Living Longer, Healthier LivesMethuselah’s Zoo: What Nature Can Teach Us about Living Longer, Healthier Lives by Steven N. Austad
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: August 16, 2022

This book offers a fascinating look at which animals are long-lived, and – to the extent that it’s known – why. It’s not so much, as the subtitle suggests, a book about how humans can live longer by applying understanding of other creatures of longevity. The advice for living longer would include tips such as: be a relatively large species, be a species that flies [of its own devices,] be ectothermic, be a cold-water aquatic creature, mature slowly, live underground, etc. This kind of knowledge, while interesting, isn’t really applicable to humans. Other takeaways are relevant to humanity, but still don’t change the calculus– e.g. have a relatively big brain. So, if one’s entire interest in this book is based on learning about how humans can live longer by applying ideas from other species, there is little to be gleaned, e.g. a brief discussion of antioxidants, free radicals, and metabolism. That said, it’s an excellent overview of long-lived animals and the evidence for why said creatures (including humans) live so long.

The book is divided into four parts, animals of the air, land, sea, and humans – respectively.

If you’re interested in nature and biology, I’d highly recommend this book. I learned a tremendous amount and the discussions of bats and Greenland Sharks were among the most illuminating — not to mention learning about creatures like clams and ant queens that I had no idea could live so long. Again, my only proviso would be that if you are interested in a book about what humans can do to live longer, there won’t be a great deal of information available [though, as mentioned, the last section does talk about longevity in humans, specifically, but not so much in a blue zone (this is what you should do) kind of way.] It’s more an argument for why more research is needed into animal longevity than it is a book about how to exploit the knowledge that already exists.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart

Nature's Numbers. Discovering Order And Pattern In The UniverseNature’s Numbers. Discovering Order And Pattern In The Universe by Ian Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This popular mathematics book reflects upon the ways in which patterns appear in nature and how mathematics can shed light on said patterns. It explores why tides are predictable while weather patterns are anything but. It investigates why flowers disproportionately have a number of petals that is in the Fibonacci sequence (a list of numbers in which each is formed through the addition of the previous two numbers.) It shows one how an eyeball can evolve, and how long it would be expected to take. It describes where and how we see calculus, probability and statistic, chaos theory, and complexity in nature.

It’s unambiguously a pop math book, there’s not an equation in sight. It does use diagrams and various graphics to convey ideas, and these help to simplify and visualize the topic. If anything, I would say the book could have benefited from more graphics [and might even have benefited from a less strict rule about sticking to colloquial prose.] (Meaning, some of the analogies and attempts to relate clarified ideas better than others.)

I found the book highly readable, and believe that – overall – the author did a fine job of providing food for thought without getting too complicated for the general reader. There were points at which the author seemed to lose his train. For example, he off-ramped into criticisms of the division of mathematics into applied and theoretical branches and the tendency to more greatly value the applied side of this false dichotomy. I have no doubt this is a worthwhile subject of discussion, but not necessarily in this book.

If you’re looking for a readable discussion of how mathematics is used in the study of nature, this book is worth reading – especially if you are equation-phobic.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Romance of Reality by Bobby Azarian

The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic ComplexityThe Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity by Bobby Azarian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 28, 2022

This book presents a metaphysics based on the relatively new (but increasingly mainstream) sciences of complexity, chaos, and information. It boldly explores some of the major questions that consume both philosophers and scientists, such as: how life came to be, what life’s purpose is (to the degree it has one,) what consciousness is and does, and how come we live in a universe finely-tuned to generate and support life? (Particularly, if one doesn’t like explanations that are audacious and unprovable like “god did it” or “there are infinite parallel universes.”)

The book starts out in territory that is fairly uncontroversial among physicists, arguing that life comes about (and does so with striking speed – i.e. fast abiogenesis) by a process through which nature moves the ordered / useful energy that Earth has in abundance into disordered / useless energy (e.g. waste heat,) a process that runs on rules not unlike Darwinian evolution (molecules have an informational existence that allow something like hereditability [passing down of “blueprints”] and mutation [distortion in copies, some of which will make the molecule or organism more efficient at using energy.])

The book then ventures into territory that is quite controversial, arguing that life has a purpose (beyond the tedious one of moving low entropy energy into a high entropy state,) and that purpose is to be an observer – i.e. to be the first stage in a self-aware world. I should point out a couple things. First, when I say this part is controversial, I mean that it couldn’t be called the consensus view, but that’s not to say that these ideas don’t have a following among some high-level intellects. Second, I think we need people to consider ideas that might seem a bit “out there” because there is a danger of not progressing because we’re trapped in morass of assumptions. Science has quite a few self-appointed guardians who mock as pseudo-science any idea that strays from scientific consensus or from a rigidly reductionist / materialist / Copernican worldview. The author doesn’t abandon a scientific point of view, even though it might seem he does to some because he abandons the nihilistic view that’s taken as a given by many in the scientific community (i.e. that life is a happy accident without purpose, significance, or influence on the universe – and that life consists of automata, playing out programs — devoid of any kind of free will.)

I don’t know how much of Azarian’s metaphysics will prove true, but this book was superbly thought-provoking and opened up to me whole new vistas of possibility about the big questions of philosophy and science. I’d highly recommend it for readers interested in the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

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98.6 [Free Verse]

The secret is...

we're energy machines.

This wild ride we're on is all about
staying 98.6.

The meaning of life
might as well be 98.6.

You work to make rent 
to be sheltered at 98.6.

You go to the store for groceries
to stoke the fires of 98.6.

You put on your coat or slippers
to keep yourself at 98.6.

You go to the beach
to warm to 98.6
&
then sweat to drop
back to 98.6.

You take medicines when you're too
far off the mark of 98.6.

You turn on the AC 
to sleep at 98.6
& 
kick off the covers
&
drag the covers back
& 
adjust the AC...
all to sleep at 98.6.

You may wish to be a flash fire
of a million degrees,
but life leaves you at 98.6.

Some day you'll cool off
and your career as
Thermoregulatory Maintenance
Specialist 
will be at an end
& 
you'll be done with
the trouble of staying 98.6.

BOOK REVIEW: Life at the Extremes by Frances Ashcroft

Life at the ExtremesLife at the Extremes by Frances Ashcroft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Anyone interested in the limits of human physiology will find this book fascinating. Technically, its subject matter is broader than that, considering the environmental limits of living creatures, generally. However, all but the last chapter focuses on how humans react to (and adapt to) extreme conditions. Chapters one through six explore the challenges and limitations of humans under extreme conditions of elevation (ch. 1,) of pressure [underwater] (ch. 2,) of heat (ch. 3,) of cold (ch. 4,) of intense physical activity [running-centric, but deals with strength and power as well] (ch. 5,) and in space (ch. 6.) Then, each chapter reflects upon examples of species that are extremely well-adapted to said conditions, and why. (e.g. After learning about how and why humans have to acclimate to survive high elevation treks, one learns about the bar-headed goose, a bird that can go from sea level to flying over Everest – all in the same day.)

The final chapter (ch. 7) is a bit different in that it discusses extremophiles, creatures that can survive in a wide range of conditions (e.g. acidity, temperature, lack of moisture, lack of oxygen, etc.) that would be certain death not only for humans but for any animals. Most of the species discussed are either single-celled creatures or tiny multi-cellular life (e.g. Tardigrades.) With respect to humans, there is a discussion of the limits and present understanding of suspended animation.

This book offers an intriguing look at life at the extremes. While written by a Professor of Physiology, it’s highly readable for a general audience. It mixes narrative examples in with the discussion of physiology to make the material approachable and engaging. I’d highly recommend this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nature is Never Silent by Madlen Ziege

Nature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each otherNature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each other by Madlen Ziege
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: Hardcover out February 8, 2021 [e-book is out now]

The central premise of this book is that humans miss the tremendous amount of communication that is going on among and between other species. We miss it because we think of communication in an extremely limited way that revolves around visual and auditory expressions of human style languages. It doesn’t occur to us that different senses (e.g. smell) or other activities (e.g. stinging or passing gases,) could be used to convey messages as overt as, “Don’t touch me!” to as complex as, “There are good flowers to the southeast, roughly four-hundred meters along this line” or “Watch out! Some beetles have started chewing on my bark.”

While one might still dismiss all this communication as extremely simple compared to the infinitely complicated endeavor humans have made communicating, it’s not all just warning signaling. Many species engage in a form of communication that most people would probably attribute to humanity alone, specifically, deception. There are female fireflies who cannot only send a mating signal to males of her species to engage in reproduction, but can send counterfeit signals of other species to attract a male of another species of which she can make a snack.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just the species most similar to us who communicate. There are chapters devoted to both unicellular creatures and plants, species that one might be surprised to learn are quite active communicators.

I found this to be a highly thought-provoking book for the nature-lover, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons with respect to what is being transmitted in the natural world on those cold and quiet days when it seems like not a creature is stirring, and yet there’s always something.

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BOOK REVIEW: Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins by Oné R. Pagán

Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal IntoxicationDrunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication by Oné R. Pagán
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Humanity’s proclivity to think ourselves above nature has led us to miss the fact that we aren’t the only intelligent creatures and that we share more in common with the rest of the animal kingdom than – perhaps – we’d like to think. Science’s recognition of this truth has spawned a vast collection of books on animal (and, for that matter, plant) intelligence as well as the other traits we share in common with different species. This book carves out an interesting niche in this literature by discussing how other creatures use psychoactive substances (i.e. what we think of as “drugs and alcohol.”) While people tend to think that we are alone not only with respect to intelligence, but also with respect to our vices, it turns out this doesn’t seem to be the case. Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about dolphins that play with blowfish or monkeys on magic mushrooms – e.g. what their internal experience of the substance is like, and to what degree consumption is purposeful versus accidental, but there is an increasing number of studies that suggest other species use drugs, and like it. The book also delves into the role plants play, particularly in producing substances that have psychoactive effects.

This book is humorous (the material is certainly there) and intriguing. It’s an easy pop science read, and avoids becoming too bogged down in the minutiae of biochemistry. That said, it does include graphics, such as chemical diagrams of psychoactive molecules, and does have to dip its toe into concepts of biology and chemistry. If you find the topic intriguing, you should give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: BrainComix by Jean-François Marmion

BraincomixBraincomix by Jean-François Marmion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This nonfiction graphic novel surveys the brain and what it does, including: sensory processing, memory, attention, unconscious activities, learning, language, emotional experience, etc. It also reviews some of the more intriguing brain disorders (e.g. synesthesia, apraxias, phantom limb syndrome, etc.) and what they tell us about the nature of the mind.

If you’re looking for a soup-to-nuts overview of the brain that covers the gist without getting in too deep, and which is quick and easy, this book is hard to beat. If you have read much about neuroscience, you probably won’t be introduced to anything new. The book employs the usual suspects of pop-sci neuroscience and cognitive psychology: Phineas Gage (i.e. rebar through the brain guy,) H.M. (i.e. couldn’t form new memories after brain surgery guy,) the rubber hand experiment, the gorilla basketball experiment, etc. However, because it’s such a quick and light read, it’s not much of an investment to review these topics, and – who knows – maybe you’ll retain more due to the graphics.

The premise is a simple one, the brain is being interviewed for a Larry King-style talk show that at times becomes a Jerry Springer-style show as “characters” (e.g. a neuron, a homunculus, the conscious mind, etc.) charge the stage to get in their two cents. This might not be the most creative or clever approach that could’ve been taken, but it also doesn’t distract from the objective of teaching about the brain – as a more intense plot might have done. The art is crudely drawn, though I suspect this is on purpose to make clear this is not a textbook, but rather a pop-sci book.

If you are looking for an introduction to the brain, you should check this book out. (Also, if you’re looking to review, quickly and concisely, you might find it of value as well.)

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BOOK REVIEW: A Natural History of the Future by Rob Dunn

A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human SpeciesA Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species by Rob Dunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

Maybe you’ve seen “Save the Humans” bumper stickers. They came about due to twin realizations. First, the desire to save whales proved too remote to spur humanity into better behavior. Second, the sci-fi subtext that humans don’t need other species and that we can survive any form of cataclysm [including those that kill off everything else] is wrong on both counts.

Dunn’s book explores what changes Earth’s lifeforms can expect of the future. As one might expect, these changes are heavily influenced by climate change, but Dunn also looks at the effect of other factors – notably the growing resistances that results from heavy use of biocides (e.g. pesticides, antibiotics, etc.)

Dunn investigates the effect of islands on evolution and speciation, and goes on to show that not all islands are surrounded by water. (By geographic definition they may be, but in terms of constraints that restrict the movement, interactions, and well-being of lifeforms there are many besides water.) This is important because climate change will drive species to attempt migration to areas that present the conditions to which the species is evolutionarily adapted. Some will fail and may go extinct. Some will succeed, but will upset the ecological applecart of the location into which they’ve moved.

Chapter nine discusses a crucial principle: being able to break a thing doesn’t mean one can readily fix it. Dunn describes plans to use robotic drones to replace the extinct bee pollinators that play a crucial role in our ecosystem, as well as the ways the drones are likely to fail to live up to their predecessors.

I found this book to be immensely thought-provoking. One can argue whether the author is too gloomy about human future (“human future” because Dunn is clear that life on the planet will go on), but it’s impossible to ignore that challenges exist.

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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short IntroductionPhilosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Excepting the final chapter, this wasn’t the book I expected, but it did raise some compelling questions. The book did devote more space to semantic and categorical questions than I found useful or interesting. These are the kinds of questions which philosophers may find joy in catching peers in paradoxes, but which are pure navel-gazing, offering no insights on how to achieve the well-lived life or to better understand the grand questions of the universe.

The book looks at the metaphysical and epistemological ramifications of evolution, species classification, genetic and memetic transmission, and the degree to which humans are or aren’t constrained by our evolutionary history. Among the questions I found most interesting were: Is it useful to speak in terms of “function” (i.e. “what a thing is for”) when discussing biological entities, given that those words seem to imply an intended purpose inconsistent with evolution? Does selection occur at the level of the individual, the group, or both? How does one reconcile the Mendelian notion of a “gene” with that of molecular biology? Lest one think Mendel’s ideas were partially formed and are now supplanted, they do internally explain dominance and recessivity, a thing molecular biology can’t yet do. Is it reasonable to apply the logic of evolution and heritability to the cultural domain?

I got a lot out of this tiny guide. It may have spent more time on semantics and categorization than I would have liked (as well as more time reviewing basic biological science,) but it did raise some intriguing questions that I didn’t anticipate as well as illuminating new dimensions of those I did. Your patience with the insubstantial questions will be a major factor in how much you get out of this book.

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