BOOK REVIEW: Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction by Bill McGuire

Global Catastrophes: A Very Short IntroductionGlobal Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction by Bill McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book explores a select set climatological, geological, and extraterrestrial impact disasters and their potential planet-wide repercussions. About half of the book deals with climate: global warming and the next ice age. [Those sound like completely unrelated topics, given global climate disruption is largely about a rise in average temperatures (which has been caused by human activities) and the coming ice age is about cooling (which is mostly because of factors outside our control — e.g. our orbital path and axial tilt — but there’s a discussion about how global warming might hasten (rather than stave off) the ice age.]

The other half of the book is about the more dramatic geological and extraterrestrial threats. There’s a chapter (ch.4) about volcanos, earthquakes, and the tsunamis they cause, and the last chapter (ch. 5) is about comet and asteroid impacts.

The book contains a great deal of thought-provoking information. There are two major criticisms to be leveled. First, it leaves some important items undiscussed – e.g. there’s nothing about the solar storms that I’ve heard constitute a planetary risk. (I do understand that technologically induced catastrophes are another book entirely.) Also, there’s little mention of the mitigative activities that are in place and what impact they might have. For example, I know NASA and others have developed technologies to not only monitor but also destroy impactors. (The author mentions monitoring but says nothing of mitigative activities.) I can’t condemn these omissions severely because this is a “very short” guide. The second criticism is potentially more concerning and that is that the tone isn’t the completely objective one we’re used to hearing on scientific subjects. I don’t fault the author for having some angst about climate change or super-volcanoes, but I am left to wonder degree of confirmation bias crept into the selection of research presented. (All “sky is falling” with no discussion of possible mitigative events or best-case scenarios sets my Spidey-sense a tingling.)

This is a fascinating look at catastrophes, though the complete doom and gloom tone of the author made me wonder whether confirmation bias might be at play (or maybe there was a presumption about what people who would read such a guide may want to hear.)


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins

The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short IntroductionThe Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book succeeds in systematically exploring the topic, but it fails to do so in a readable fashion for a non-expert reader who’s looking for a rudimentary grasp of the basics. It’s true that the topic is complex and challenging (as the author argues up front,) but I don’t believe the book’s daunting nature all lands on the subject matter. I’ve read up on other difficult topics using this series (VSI,) and found some books much more approachable.

The main problem was a lack of clarity (versus precision) in the language. In other words, the author didn’t want to oversimplify or use analogies, even though those are what’s needed for a neophyte reader to build an intuitively grasp a subject. For example, while the chapters are nicely organized by the laws of thermodynamic and presented in their usual order, there’s no quick and dirty definition of the respective law given at the beginning of each chapter. A simplified definition (incomplete and imperfect as it might be) would allow the reader to gain a basic intuition of the concept. Then, the reader can tweak and expand the concept as they go. But that’s not the approach taken here. Instead, several paragraphs are taken to get around to a statement of the law in question. There was also a lack of analogies and other tools to help the reader gain a foothold based upon what they know. I suspect these tools were avoided because they are all incorrect at some level of precision, and it was the scholarly fear of imprecision that resulted in their teaching effectiveness being abandoned.

This is a great guide for people who think mathematically and / or who are looking for a quick refresher of ideas they once knew. For those who don’t have a background in science and who need verbal explanations that make an effort to be comprehensible, it’s probably not the best one can do.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Gardener’s Guide to Botany by Scott Zona

A Gardener's Guide to Botany: The biology behind the plants you love, how they grow, and what they needA Gardener’s Guide to Botany: The biology behind the plants you love, how they grow, and what they need by Scott Zona
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release Date: December 6, 2022

This beginner’s guide to botany is well conceived and executed. The photographs are beautiful and well-chosen to help the reader understand the complexities discussed in the text. The text gets definitionally dense in places, but also presents fascinating ideas in plain English. I learned a lot from the book, particularly where it was less steeped in technical terminology and details and offered intriguing ideas and examples.

While the book’s eight chapters aren’t formally divvied up, I would place them into three groups. Chapters one and two are about what plants are and how they are organized to do what they do. Chapters three through five are about what plants need to survive (water, light, and nutrients, respectively) and why. The last three chapters explore the main activities plants engage in (i.e. defense, reproduction, and seed dispersal.)

I found this book to be informative and readable, and if you’re looking for a basic guide to botany that skillfully employs photographs, I’d have a look at this one.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Body Am I by Moheb Costandi

Body Am I: The New Science of Self-ConsciousnessBody Am I: The New Science of Self-Consciousness by Moheb Costandi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

In this book you’ll learn about: a man who wanted a perfectly healthy leg amputated, a fisherman who felt like his hands were crab claws, a woman who felt she wasn’t responsible for the actions of her hand, various people who’ve experienced “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” [i.e. feeling one has shrunk or stretched,] and about many other issues stemming from the body’s sensory and motor integration with what we think of as the mind. For most of us, the most powerful take-away to be gained from this book is just how wonderful and awe-worthy it is that we have bodies that are so well integrated and coordinated that we can go about life engaging in all sorts of fascinating and productive activities.

While this isn’t the only book that addresses this subject, I think it’s a topic worth learning more about and reflecting upon in depth. We can get so out of touch with the fact that our body is integrated with our mental and sensory experiences that we take “brain in a vat” scenarios as a given for the near future, as if one is the sum of one’s neuronal connections. This book will disabuse one this notion. In fact, the final chapter (Ch. 10) questions the proposition that copying consciousness is a matter of mastering such neuronal mapping. It’s easy to miss how much of our emotional experience is rooted in what’s happening in our guts and heart, and how much all the non-central nervous system parts of the body play in our conscious experience of the world.

I learned a great deal from this book and would highly recommend it.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Epigenetics by Cath Ennis

Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide by Cath Ennis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

I’m old enough to remember when the human gene sequence was first being decoded, and there was a widespread belief that it was going to end genetic diseases in one fell swoop. It didn’t do that, and – in fact – seemed to result in whole new levels of confusion. It’s fascinating to me that now Epigenetics, a subject that grew out of that confusion, is also being seen as the ticket to ending disease. Epigenetics investigates what traits are expressed and why, given that a specific gene sequence has a vast array of potential for various traits to be (or not to be) expressed.

For those familiar with this series (the “A Graphic Guide” series,) this book is more difficult to digest than most titles, certainly than any of the several others that I’ve read. To be fair, the subject matter is more technical than most, leading to it being more jargon- and acronym-intensive. In addition, the subject isn’t cut up into as small of pieces as most of the books. This one has far fewer and longer chapters than the others that I’ve read.

That said, while it reads technically for the general reader, there are a few concepts (methylation, demethylation, and histone modification) that are frequently revisited throughout the book, and so one can get a basic grasp of those concepts. The book also explores some issues that are more readily understood by the lay reader, such as: nature v. nurture in gene expression, the role of twin studies, and how pseudo-scientific individuals and organizations have made fraudulent claims involving Epigenetics.

If you want to learn about the fundamentals of Epigenetics, you may want to look into this book — but keep in mind that it’s not a smooth read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Exquisite Machine by Sian E. Harding

The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the HeartThe Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart by Sian E. Harding
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release date: September 20, 2022

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

In this book, a renowned heart researcher presents an overview of what we know (and don’t know) about the human heart: i.e. what can go wrong with it and why, how [and to what degree] it fixes itself, and what modern medicine can do to treat or replace a damaged heart. I learned the most from the middle of the book – i.e. chapters five through seven. Chapter five explores plasticity in the heart, plasticity is a concept that most people associate with the brain and its ability to rewire itself to contend with damage or changing needs. The other two chapters look at how the heart can be damaged, specifically as a result of emotional experience. A “broken heart” isn’t necessarily a misnomer.

Chapter four is also intriguing but takes the win for “which one of these things is not like the others.” It deals with big data, though not in a general sense but rather as it applies to gaining a better understanding of the heart. This chapter discusses a common challenge of medical research: that it’s hard to come up with large enough study groups of patients with close enough to the same problem to draw solid conclusions. Four also discusses the potential of the vast amount of data that exists, e.g. Fitbit heart rate figures.

The last couple chapters deal largely with the future of heart repair through genetic / biological means (as opposed to via mechanical hearts and technologies, which are dealt with in Chapter nine.) This is where the book gets to be a challenging read for a readership of non-experts. It gets technical and jargon- / acronym-heavy.

The heart is an astounding entity, relentlessly at work, rarely giving up despite regularly being subjected to intense shocks, an organ tied to our whole being in a way that humans have always felt – if only just begun to understand. If you’re interested in learning more about this magnificent organ, check this book out.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short IntroductionMyth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This book situates myth amid the broader body of scholarship by examining what role myth plays within – or in opposition to – various academic disciplines, including: science, philosophy, religion, the study of ritual, literature, psychology, structuralism, and social studies. The book is organized so as to compare competing ideas of various major scholars in each of the aforementioned domains. So, as the blurb is upfront about, the book doesn’t spend much time talking about what myths are, and the discussion of how myths are structured is only made as relevant to distinguishing various hypotheses.

One does obtain some food-for-thought about what myths are as one learns how different scholars have approached myth. Questions of how narrowly myth should be defined (e.g. only creation stories v. all god and supernatural tales,) and how myths compare to folktales, national literatures, and the like are touched upon. One also learns that some scholars took myths literally (and, therefore, saw them as obsolete in the face of science and modern scholarship,) but other scholars viewed myths more symbolically.

If you’re looking for an introductory book to position myth in the larger scholarly domain and to examine competing hypotheses about myths, this is a great book for you. However, those who want a book that elucidates what myths are (and aren’t) and how they are structured and to what ends, may find this book inadequate for those objectives. Just be aware of the book you’re getting.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Fractals: A Graphic Guide by Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon & Will Rood

Introducing Fractals: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Fractals: A Graphic Guide by Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Fractal Geometry is a school of mathematics that contends with the kinds of shapes seen in nature, shapes which often appear irregular (at least on some scale,) but which are also frequently self-similar (i.e. the twig looks like the branch looks like the whole tree.) One problem that led to the discipline’s development was determining the distance of a coastline. The distance between measurements vastly alters the final measurement one gets. From the discipline’s origins in observation of the natural world and the problems found in nature, fractal geometry was put to use for problems in ecology, finance, technology, and art and music. The book touches upon this sprawl of the subject, as well as relating fractal geometry to Euclidian Geometry, Calculus, and theories of Chaos and Complexity.

This book offers a simple and cursory overview of the subject. A reader expecting to learn how to employ Fractal Geometry will come away disappointed, but one who just wants to know the kind of problems its useful for and get a basic and intuitive explanation of why it’s useful can gain a great deal from the book. As the subtitle suggests, the book is illustrated and the graphics are far more useful in this volume than in most of the “Graphic Guide” series. That probably comes as no surprise as the subject is inherently more visual than average.

If you’re starting from ground zero, I’d highly recommend this book. Those with a mathematical background may yearn for more depth.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon.in Page

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.


View all my reviews