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

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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.

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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

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Release date: September 20, 2022

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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.

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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

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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.


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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

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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.


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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

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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.

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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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Astronomical Fail [Limerick]

The astronomer Francesco Sizzi
worked himself into a tizzy:
"More rocks in space?
There're seven holes in a face!
Pssh! Galileo calls himself scientist, but is he?"

Note: When Galileo suggested Jupiter had moons, Sizzi summarily rejected the idea based on the “rationale” that there couldn’t be more than seven natural satellites because there are seven holes in a mammal’s head, seven days in a week, and [somehow] seven metals… ergo, seven astronomical bodies, maximum.

BOOK REVIEW: The Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle & Matthew Huy

The Physiology of YogaThe Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a much-needed book for two reasons. First, while there are a number of fine books on anatomy as it applies to yoga, such books focus on the musculoskeletal system, occasionally venturing into the respiratory system – re: pranayama (breathwork.) However, yoga anatomy books rarely giving an overview of the workings of the body as a whole or describe how yoga influences and is influenced by other bodily systems. This book systematically reviews not only the muscles, bones, and lungs, but offers insight into the less familiar systems, such as the lymphatic, immune, and endocrine systems. Unless you want to know more about yoga and the integumentary system (skin, hair, and nails,) this book has got you covered. The book does an excellent job of avoiding muddling science with mythological beliefs about the body, a common sin among yoga books.

Second, there are many physiology misunderstandings and mistakes that are widespread and have come to be repeatedly parroted by new generations of teachers. These range from ideas that are unsupported by scientific evidence to those that are completely in conflict with well-understood science. This book has text boxes throughout that investigate widely taught physiology myths (e.g. twists detox the liver, shoulder stands stimulate the thyroid & pineal glands, kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) stops the aging process, heavy sweating detoxifies the body, and various claims about specific asana / practices curing specific ailments.) These boxes review what studies have been done on each claim, and (in the absence of scientific literature) it discusses whether claims make any sense in light of well-established physiological science.

The book is clear and easy to read, and has well-drawn anatomical drawings and diagrams to help communicate the workings of the body. It also has an extensive bibliography of works referenced.

The book wasn’t perfect. I thought the last chapter, which is a collection of yoga sequences, was out of place and unnecessary, given the objectives of this book. I suspect its inclusion was solely to remind readers flipping through the book that they were reading a book about yoga as well as physiology. (The graphics and headings don’t necessarily scream yoga.) However, I think this could have been more relevantly and effectively by including more graphics throughout that show individuals engaged in yogic practices / asana, or – alternatively – focusing on the physiological aspects of the practices and sequences in the last chapter. There was also a place or two where I wasn’t sure what the authors were saying, not because they didn’t write in a clear and readable style or because what they were saying wholly conflicted with what I understood to be true, but just because there was enough ambiguity that I was left puzzled.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and practitioners looking to expand their understanding of the workings of the human body, and to liberate themselves from some misinformation that has gained a following.


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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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