BOOK REVIEW: The Physics of Fun by Carla Mooney

The Physics of FunThe Physics of Fun by Carla Mooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: September 15, 2021

This book uses skateboarding, snowboarding, trampolining, music concerts, and video games as a vehicle to teach (middle school-aged) kids some basic physics concepts. I’m not sure why this isn’t the usual textbook approach, teaching lessons via what is of greatest interest to students, but it certainly wasn’t the mode when I was a kid.

While I’m no expert on middle school science curricula, I suspect this book wouldn’t work as a primary classroom text because it doesn’t systematically cover the subject. The chapters on skateboarding, snowboarding, and trampolining explain many terms and concepts of mechanics, but not necessarily everything taught in science class. The penultimate chapter is about waves, both sound and light, and uses the idea of music and laser light shows to elaborate on the topic. The final chapter uses video games as a way to introduce the fundamentals of electricity and circuits.

I think this book is at its best when it is breaking down the physics of tricks in the first few chapters. That’s where it separates itself from the usual dry textbook approach, and any improvement in the book would be seen following that line. Granted, some topics are more amenable than others.

The book has a glossary and each chapter ends with hands on exercises students can do to improve their understanding of the material considered. The graphics are widespread and include cartoons, diagrams, and photos.

If you’re looking for a book to get a child excited about science, give this one a look – particularly if the child is interested in extreme sports.


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BOOK REVIEW: Proust & the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Time to get meta, and do some reading about reading. Wolf’s book explores the neuroscience of reading, the evolution of writing systems, and what keeps some children from learning to read as rapidly as most. If you’re wonder about the seemingly arcane title, Proust’s essay “On Reading” planted a seed of thought that would become this book. The squid bit reflects the aquatic creature’s famous neurological adaptability, which is also witnessed in the learning human brain. Reading as both a mystic experience and as the unanticipated consequence of an extremely plastic brain are among the book’s recurring themes.

Another recurring idea is that reading has a cost. This view was famously expressed by Socrates, who believed reading would contribute to diminished memory, intellectual laziness, and other problems. Wolf reflects upon Socrates’ criticisms, but also draws a parallel between Socrates’ ideas on the subject and the present-day argument that the internet / social media is driving us inexorably and inevitably toward an “Idiocracy” type world.

The parts of the book that deal with the neuroscience of reading do get a bit complicated. It would be hard for them not to as reading is a complex task unfolding within the most complex system that we know of. However, wouldn’t say that this book is any more dense or incomprehensible than most pop neuroscience books – especially as it’s mixed in with less challenging material.

My understanding of dyslexia (Ch. 7 & 8) grew considerably while reading this book. I learned that it isn’t a unitary affliction, but can come about at any of a number of cognitive tasks that have to transpire during reading.

If you’re interested in how humanity learned to read, the benefits and costs of this capacity, and what dyslexia really is, this book is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hurts So Good by Leigh Cowart

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on PurposeHurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 14, 2021

Humans devote a lot of effort to avoiding unpleasant sensations. I’ve even heard people philosophize that all human activity is about moving toward pleasure or away from pain, but this claim fails on two grounds. First, people don’t invariably flee from pain, sometimes they run into its arms. Second, the dichotomization of pleasure and pain, categorizing them as opposites, also fails for a wide variety of human endeavors.

This book reflects upon a diverse set of cases in which the pleasure-pain dichotomy breaks down, attempting to glimpse why this is the case. Cowart investigates pepper-eating contests, ultramarathons, Polar Bear Club mid-winter dips, flagellation by religious adherents, and sexual sadomasochism. One thing these diverse activities have in common is that individuals voluntarily and purposefully subject themselves to intensely painful sensations. Throughout the book, the author is forthright about the varied ways that she has been attracted to pain, including: ballet dancing, an eating disorder, and sexual masochism.

This book takes a story-centric approach. As the subtitle suggests, it does present scientific findings, but this information is tucked in amid the stories – both her own confessional tales and the stories of the masochists (broadly speaking, i.e. not referring only to sexual pain-seekers) she meets during her research trips.

As a student of both martial arts and yoga, I found that the changing of one’s perception of, and relationship to, sensation is one of the most profound and empowering aspects of these practices. I, therefore, was curious what brought people to the purposeful pursuit of pain and what benefits others found. Not surprisingly, there isn’t just one reason for all cases, and Cowart discusses neurochemical, social, and psychological reasons. If you’re curious about why people engage in pain purposefully and voluntarily, this book is a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Immunity by Jenna Macciochi

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune SystemImmunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune System by Jenna Macciochi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to keep one’s immune system firing on all cylinders, and it reports on the scientific findings about how a range of lifestyle activities (e.g. exercise, sleep, and nutrition) impact upon the robustness of one’s immune response. The book was exceedingly timely, having been put out last spring in the early days of the pandemic [though I was delinquent in getting to my review until now.]

The book consists of just seven chapters, though they are substantial in length and extent of discussion of the respective topics. The first chapter offers a primer on the immune system, its components, and how it does its crucial job. This chapter also explains how vaccinations work, what autoimmune diseases and allergies are, and what role genetics (nature) and lifestyle / environment (nurture) play in immunity.

Chapter two investigates a range of topics at the nexus of lifecycle and immunity, including: differences between male and female immune responses, pregnancy and immunity, and the effects of aging and menopause on immune system activity.

Chapter three is about our intestinal microbiomes and immunity. If this seems like a strange topic to devote an entire chapter to, you probably haven’t been following the voluminous outpouring of research findings about how our helpful microbiological lifeforms are being shown to have a profound impact on all aspects of human health and well-being from mental health to, well, immune system robustness.

Chapter four explores how immune system activity is compromised by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. However, it also looks more broadly at how our immune system responds to the various cycles in which it finds itself — from the daily cycle of days and nights to the yearly seasonal cycle.

Chapter five considers the nexus of mental health and immune response. As was mentioned with respect to the gut, the connections between physiological activity and mental health are becoming ever more apparent – though there remains much to be understood.

The penultimate chapter is about fitness and physical activity and what is know about why exercise is so good for one’s immune response. Of course, there seem to be diminishing marginal returns (less benefit for a given additional workout) and even diminishing returns (negative outcomes) if one goes too crazy with one’s exercise regiment and doesn’t give one’s body adequate amounts of rest.

The final chapter is about the role of nutrition in immune system activity. The approach is very much accord with my own beliefs which are that if one eats right, there is little need for supplements, and no volume of supplements will save you from a poor diet. The emphasis is upon a high-fiber diet rich in plant nutrients and balanced to provide all necessary macro- and micronutrients, while debunking fads and dietary myths. There is discussion of many of the foods that are traditionally associated with immunity (echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, etc.,) and what claims seem to hold and which are unproven.

If you don’t know a lot about the science of healthy lifestyles, this book offers an additional benefit in that it approaches the topic from a quite basic level. That is, it provides a lot of background information that would be useful for a complete neophyte to understand the points about immune activity. So, for example, the author lays out rudimentary explanations of micronutrients or sleep cycles before getting into the relevant information about how these impact on immunity. Of course, the flip side is that for those who have studied this science, it may take some skimming because there is a lot of material that will probably be elementary to those who practice healthy living.

I found this to be an extremely beneficial book. Its focus upon what one can do to improve immune robustness makes it tremendously useful for the average reader. It presents the science without getting too deep in the weeds of detailed physiological activity. I felt the author did an excellent job of walking the line to produce a book that is useful, readable, and digestible.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham

Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short IntroductionCognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book provides a brief overview of cognitive neuroscience, a discipline that has really only been around for the past few decades, one that uses technologies allowing scientists to see what parts of the brain are active during a given mental activity. The reader learns what parts of the brain are involved in the various activities of being human from perception through action, and what can go wrong with these processes. While that sounds simple and straightforward, the immense complexity of the brain makes it anything but, and there is a lot of medical jargon and qualifying statements to explain how a given relationship between brain location and activity isn’t as simple or well understood as we are frequently led to believe. [Any plain and direct explanation of the brain workings is likely to be at best partial truth, and more likely outright deceptive.]

I found the organization of this book to be logical and conducive to learning about this complex and technical topic. The first chapter, “A Recent Field,” describes what cognitive neuroscience is and where it fits in among the various sciences that deal with mental activity including, psychology, psychiatry, etc. This gives one an idea of both how cognitive neuroscience can contribute to our understanding of mental activity, but also where its limitations lie and why it has not displaced all the other disciplines.

Chapters two through eight make up the core of the book and present an exploration of the various aspects of mental activity and what has been learned about them through studies in this field. The progression is logical and elementary: perception (Ch. 2,) attention (Ch. 3,) memory (Ch. 4,) reasoning (Ch. 5,) decision (Ch. 6,) confirmation / checking (Ch. 7,) and finally action (Ch. 8.) In each chapter practical questions are discussed, questions that will be of interest to readers whose goal is not vocabular expansion, in addition to the discussion of what brain region is involved with what activity. What kinds of questions? How amputees “feel” pain from the missing part of the body? Why humans suck at multitasking, and under what circumstances they can do better at it? How come people who have amnesia remember how to talk and engage in physical activities? Is there free will, and – if so – in what sense? Do we think in language? Etc.

The last chapter reflects upon the future of the discipline. Over the course of the book, the reader learns the limitations of what functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans can tell one about what is happening with the brain, and in this chapter one is introduced to the next generation of technologies that may take our level of understanding to another level.

This book has an excellent feature that I don’t recall seeing in other AVSI books. (That is probably, in part, because many of them don’t need it like this one because their subject matter is more readily grasped.) Said feature is a text box at the beginning of the chapter that asks some relatively rudimentary and practical questions, and then – at the end of the chapter – those questions are answered in another box. I think the author recognized that there was a high degree of risk of losing readers if the entire book was, “and when you do decide how many minutes to microwave your Hot Pocket, the temporo-parietal junction works in conjunction with the …” [not an actual quote fragment] he would produce book of limited benefit. [i.e. it would be too technical for the neophyte reader who just wants some practical insight (the AVSI target demographic,) but not technical enough for students of brain anatomy.] These text boxes help keep the reader focused on what is being conveyed while not getting too caught up in arcane terminology.

Other ancillary matter includes graphics (photographs of technology and readouts and diagrams showing where brain areas are located,) references, and a further reading section.

I found this book to have some intriguing discussions on interesting topics. That said, those discussions are interlaced with some necessarily complicated and dense subject matter (that’s the nature of the discipline.) That said, I think the author recognized his challenge and the question boxes and answer boxes that bookended the core chapters were very useful in offering focus for a non-expert reader. It you want a bare-bones overview of cognitive neuroscience, it’s worth reading this slim volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Secret World of Weather by Tristan Gooley

The Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal, and DewdropThe Secret World of Weather: How to Read Signs in Every Cloud, Breeze, Hill, Street, Plant, Animal, and Dewdrop by Tristan Gooley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 8, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an article discussing the numerous types of human intelligence. While I firmly believe that the traditional notion of intelligence is sorely inadequate, the social scientist in me is always skeptical when social scientists try to pack up human experience neatly into boxes [because, often times, human experience is anything but neat — thus resulting in categories that aren’t mutually exclusive, are overly partitioned, or are insufficiently partitioned.] So, I don’t know whether I believe that the current scheme, which suggests there are eight types of intelligence, is a good one or not. [Getting to the point here, I promise.] For instance, I’m not sure whether “naturalist intelligence” [one of the eight categories] is really a different kind of intelligence, or just a different field of application. What I do know, is that – either way – it is worth trying to improve one’s understanding of nature, and – also — this book will help you build these faculties.

Tristan Gooley is the Sherlock Holmes of the natural world, taking note of often subtle cues to better understand the overall picture of what’s going on in nature. This particular book examines what we can determine about weather using the variety of clues offered by the natural world – ranging from obvious weather signs like clouds to more obscure indicators such as animal behavior.

The book consists of twenty-two chapters. Many of the chapters are focused on weather phenomena like clouds, winds, fog, precipitation, dew, etc. Some chapters are about natural elements that provide indicators about what might be expected, e.g. the shape of mountains as they influence wind patters, the differential heating effects of different surfaces of the planet. And some chapters discuss specific ecosystems and their recurrent weather, e.g. forests or cities.

The book contains many graphics, mostly drawings and diagrams used to visually depict ideas that are not readily grasped through text descriptions. The book also contains notes, a bibliography, and suggested further readings.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who spends time outdoors or who wants to learn more about doing so. Gooley uses stories, analogies, and interesting facts skillfully throughout the book, building a work that will teach one a great deal in a fun and interesting way.


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BOOK REVIEW: Range by David Epstein

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The human world has been shaped in large part by a trend toward increasing specialization. From the agricultural revolution through Adam Smith’s teachings about division of labor to thriving medical specialties such as Gerontological Podiatric Vascular Specialist, the trend has been toward knowing more and more about less and less on the way to knowing everything about nothing. However, it’s become increasingly apparent both that hyper-specialization has its downsides, and that well-rounded generalists can solve some problems and make some innovations that specialists – blinded by their silos – can’t. Epstein’s premise is not that we need to roll-back specialization, but rather that we need to recognize what it does well and where it tends to fail, and to value generalists for what they bring to the table – which is often substantial.

If Epstein’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably for his previous book, “The Sports Gene,” which examined the science of athletic excellence. This book’s introduction sets up the discussion with a pair of sports-based examples. The first is Tiger Woods, a golfing legend who is one of the dominate forces in his sport. Woods is the poster-child for obsessive specialization and the frequently-cited (if greatly misunderstood and over-applied) 10,000-hour rule. [An idea that — on average — one needs about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of an activity. It turns out to be demonstrably wrong when applied to many activities, and seems to have contributed to a lot of repetitive stress injuries, if not mental health issues, owing to fanatical parents and coaches who bought into the idea hook, line, and sinker.] From his earliest childhood, Woods’s life was built around the game. The Woods case seems to bolster the idea that children who wish to be world-class elite athletes must focus their efforts on one sport as soon as possible. Until, however, it is juxtaposed to the story of Roger Federer, an athlete who has also been at the top of his sport (tennis,) but who took a much more meandering and varied route to becoming a champion.

The book consists of twelve chapters that seek to illuminate different dimensions of the specialist-generalist divide. The first chapter doesn’t dive into the arguments for generalization and well-rounded training as one might expect, but rather it shows how the idea that specialization is essential to success gained hold. The case that Epstein takes up to explain this tendency is that of the Polgar sisters, a trio of Hungarian siblings who became globally-recognized chess masters. Their father fought to be able to homeschool the girls (this was Cold War Eastern Europe — so doing one’s own thing wasn’t something one just decided to do and then did,) arguing that he could achieve greatness, launching his girls to the top of their field. The fact that Polgar succeeded could be taken as further iron-clad evidence for the virtue of specialization, but what it really does is to set up a discussion of how we might might go about differentiating fields where intense specialization is beneficial from those where it isn’t. It is convincingly argued that chess is not universally analogous to many other activities.

Chapter two explores the topic of cognition, and the effect that a general education has had on humankind’s thinking. The discussion centers on the “Flynn Effect” a steady rise in test scores that are supposed to measure innate intelligence (e.g. IQ tests,) but the fact that there has been a steady improvement on tests suggests there is something more at play than innate intelligence. It’s the third chapter that finally explicitly delves into the case for generalization, and it does so through through the fascinating case of a Venetian Women’s musical group that became legends despite the fact that: a.) they were only allotted a quite limited amount of time for music study given the competing requirements of their chores, general education, and other obligations; b.) even within the domain of music, they were famous for being able to switch instruments mid-act, or to serve as both vocalist and instrumentalist.

Chapter four completely changed my perspective on “new math.” I’d always shared in the widespread curmudgeonly attitude towards it, as if it were purely to accommodate the laziness of the youth, but I came away thinking about the topic very differently. The argument Epstein advances is that in a rush to teach the subject as quickly as possible, students of my generation were taught to memorize a massive number of rules and strings of sequences needed to solve problems. Because of this, such students had no intuition for why said sequences of operations worked – not to mention very little love for the subject of mathematics, which seemed both difficult and pointless [a deadly combination – either one of those characteristics will meet with limited resistance, but together they spell doom.] Chapter five investigates how use of analogies from outside a discipline can open up pathways to solutions that weren’t found from within. Chapter six shares a unique view on “grit,” the ability to keep digging through all the challenges to achieve a desired goal. Grit is typically perceived as an excellent trait, but Epstein shows that too much of some types of grit can trap people in the wrong academic field or line of work. There is a fascinating discussion of the US Military Academy and the Army’s attrition problem. They kept getting high-grit people who would power through the challenging parts of selection, but who [after great investment by the Army] would leave as soon as their minimum service requirement was met. It turned out the people they were paying the most to get into service were the least likely to stay, and the process they thought would weed out those who weren’t career material didn’t work at all.

Chapter seven tells the story of Francis Hesselbein, a housewife turned CEO, and how the exploration of one’s possible selves can help one achieve great and unexpected things. Chapter eight investigates a number of cases in which outsiders with broad knowledge bases were able to achieve what experts could not. Chapter nine discusses Nintendo’s path from a middling playing card manufacturer to one of video-gaming’s top names. They hired an engineer (a self-proclaimed tinkerer) to do maintenance of their equipment and he – ultimately — developed a principle that would turn into the company’s core innovation philosophy. It was called “lateral thinking with withered technology” and it utilized existing technology for entirely new purposes with respect to game play [e.g. the technology from calculators was put to use in making handheld videogaming units – i.e. the “Gameboy.”] This approach allowed Nintendo to produce at very low cost and to dominate the market at their price point.

Chapter ten examines the fascinating phenomena whereby experts in a field are often notoriously bad at making predictions about future happenings within their area of expertise. The concept of “foxes v. hedgehogs” in forecasting is discussed at length. Specialist experts tend to be hedgehogs, they build their forecasts around a pet hypothesis and then dig in and are quite reluctant to adjust to changing information. [Foxes look at many types of information and approaches, and quickly adjust to changing information.] The penultimate chapter uncovers another common defect among specialist experts, attachment to familiar tools. The central case of this discussion involves NASA engineers disregard of evidence of a potential danger that couldn’t be put in terms of quantitative data. A secondary example is provided by firefighters who literally couldn’t drop their tools [chainsaws, axes, etc.] when they needed to run to escape advancing wildfires. [I could see another example from my training in the martial arts. In learning weapon disarms and retention, it often takes some hard lessons for martial artists to not maintain a white-knuckle grip on a weapon that they don’t control and can’t immediately put to use – all the while they are tying up their hands, they are also taking a beating. Knowing when to let go, and change one’s tactics, doesn’t come easy.]

The last chapter offers some examples of generalists who achieved greatness by applying a broader understanding than others. The people who learn less and less about more and more on the way to knowing nothing about everything have their purpose in this world. There’s a conclusion that lays out some basic ideas for applying the concepts from the book. The Kindle edition that I read had a substantial “Afterword” that was introduced with the paperback edition and which examined some different cases to clarify the generalist advantage.

I found this book to be an enlightening read. It used many fascinating cases to make clear where generalists have particular value. If you are interested in where the jack-of-all-trades will excel, this is an excellent book to give a read. Along the way, it also lends insight into learning, innovation, and creativity.

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BOOK REVIEW: Empire of Ants by Susanne & Olaf Foitzik

Empire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny ConquerorsEmpire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors by Susanne Foitzik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 6, 2021

 

In love with our own grandeur, most humans don’t give a thought to the magnificence of other species, and this is particularly true of ants. People use ants as their go-to being to fill in the SAT Analogy “Gods are to Humans as Humans are to ______________.” When we want to explain how some more capable entity (be it a god, a trans-galactic alien species, or an advanced artificial intelligence) is more likely to kill us through indifference than through maliciousness, we draw upon the image of an ant about to be crushed under the boot of a person who’s just going about his day, harboring no ill-will towards his six-legged neighbors.

This book will roll back that smug attitude, impressing the reader not only with all the little-known but intriguing behaviors of ants, but also with the range of skills employed by ants that we humans have always thought of as our unique bailiwick – e.g. city building, agriculture, slavery, war, and communication of complex ideas.

The book consists of fourteen chapters and a brief epilogue. The introductory chapter not only prepares the reader to be more impressed by ants, it also explains how crucial ants are collectively to our ecosystems. Chapter two explores the ant caste system in much more detail than the usual queen / worker / drone distinction, and it also explains how sex is determined in a manner quite different than that to which we are used. Chapter three continues an extensive discussion of reproduction that was begun in the previous chapter.

Chapter four dives into what might be called the governance of ant colonies. That may sound grandiose (and, in some sense, it is) but we are talking about huge populations living in a relatively small space. While sci-fi might have one imagining the queen ruling with an iron first while all others act as mindless automatons, the truth is very different, and – in fact – after establishment of the nest, the queen leaves the the thinking business altogether. Chapters five and six investigate the subjects of communication and navigation, respectively. Ants have a tremendously varied set of chemical emitters and receptors, allowing them to communicate a wide range of messages with great clarity. They also communicate through physical contact. Anyone who has ever seen a line of ants in convoy probably suspects that ants must be skilled at getting where they need to go and back. This chapter explains the methods by which ants achieve this purposeful motion, from chemical signals to navigation by the sun to – in some cases – an internal magnetic compass.

Chapter seven takes the reader into the realm of ant militaries, elucidating how they hunt, bivouac, and carry out the various tasks required of them. Chapter eight introduces the question of how colonies (that can be on par with human cities with respect to population) feed everyone, and gives special attention to leafcutter supply chain logistics and in-colony fungiculture. Chapter nine examines the lives of tree-dwelling ants. In this chapter, we learn that not only do ants engage in activities we think of as human; some also perform activities we associate with other species – such as silk weaving. Chapter ten continues the book’s examination of ant agriculture by explaining how some ants keep aphids as livestock [the aphids consume leaves and excrete sugars as a waste product because there is far more of it than they need for their own purposes.]

While chapter seven indicated how ants share some of the less palatable habits of humans – specifically, war, chapter eleven delves into some of the downright loathsome activities these insects share with our species – including: enslavement and theft. Chapter twelve identifies some of the threats to ant health and well-being, including tape worms and fungal parasites. You may have read about the fungus that can hijack an ant’s nervous system to turn it into a zombie (Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani,) eventually the fruiting body of the cordyceps pops out of the ant’s head to release spores (after the fungus has “driven” the ant high up into a tree from which the spores can be widely distributed.)

Chapter 13, entitled “The Path to World Domination,” is largely about how invasive species have come to take over in many parts of the world. This includes fire ants, which the Spanish (unwittingly) hauled from Mexico to the Philippines, from which the insects were dispersed all over the world via trade routes. While — throughout the entire book — intriguing ant behaviors are mentioned, the final chapter collects together a group of particularly unlikely skills that are witnessed among ants. My favorites were ants that could glide back to tree trunks when knocked off a limb, as well as another species that could catapult themselves through the air.

The book is well-illustrated, employing both drawings and color photographs. The photographs are particularly useful for showing some of the stranger species and – in a few cases – behaviors that can be difficult to visualize. There is an extensive “further reading” section that is organized by chapter.

“Empire of Ants” provides a fascinating look at an underappreciated species. Just as Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” changed the way I looked at trees, this book changed the way I see ants. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the natural world.

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BOOK REVIEW: Breath Taking by Michael J. Stephen

Breath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our FutureBreath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our Future by Michael J. Stephen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: January 19, 2021

 

This book explores the crucial role of breathing in human existence, discussing evidence of how breathing practices can contribute to healing of numerous illnesses, investigating the range of threats — from pollution to smoking to toxic dust — that can threaten our ability to breath, and examining a number of diseases that can disturb a person’s breathing. This book is primarily a popular science look at pulmonary medicine. Unlike other breath-related books that I’ve reviewed, this book is mostly about what can go wrong with our lungs and what medical science is doing to combat these threats. The story of how breathwork and changing breathing patterns can improve health and well-being is addressed, but that’s not the book’s central focus. The book uses plenty of stories (e.g. case studies) and what I call “fun facts” to keep the reading from becoming too dry or clinical for a neophyte reader.

The book consists of fifteen chapters. The first two chapters provide basic background information to help understand how the Earth happens to have the oxygen-laden air necessary for our type of life (Ch. 1) and how the lungs exploit that air in fueling our bodily activities (Ch. 2.) Chapter thee explores how breathing begins in newborn babies, explaining that the lungs are the only major organ that doesn’t start working until we are out in the world, and lung inflation doesn’t always go smoothly. The fourth chapter discusses how breathwork (including — but not limited to — yogic pranayama) has been shown to improve health for those experiencing a range of conditions, including: depression, addiction, PTSD, and pain, as well as how breath and meditational practices contribute to better health, generally.

Chapter five investigates the intersection of the respiratory and immune systems, explaining how autoimmune conditions, allergies, and asthma come to be. In chapter six, the author discusses one of the most common and widespread diseases in the world, tuberculosis (TB,) a disease which not only threatens the lives of many, but also sits dormant in a huge portion of the population.

Chapters seven through nine each deal with hazardous materials that are inhaled into the lungs. The first of these chapters is about smoking, and it focuses on the question of how nicotine acts in the body to create intense addictions – as well as what has and hasn’t worked to help people break said addiction. Chapter eight is about pollution. (As resident of a city of twelve million people, I found this to be a particularly disturbing chapter because air pollution is a hazard that is too easy to be blind to if one doesn’t suffer from respiratory problems.) Chapter nine investigates a range of breathable hazards including smoke, dust, and asbestos, and it does so through the lens of the rescue and cleanup at the World Trade Center after the dual collapse of the twin towers on 9-11, an event which released all sorts of toxic material into the air, hazards for which most responders were ill-equipped.

Chapter ten through twelve are about ailments that may or may not be linked to environmental causes like the ones mentioned in the paragraph above. The first of these is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which, by definition, is a condition that arises from an unknown cause, an ailment which involves a stiffening and thickening of lung tissue (which must be thin and supple to allow gas exchange and the expansion and contraction of the breath cycle.) Chapter eleven focuses on lung cancer, which is often due to an inhaled hazard (most notably, smoking,) but not necessarily. While the other chapters of the book focus on breathing as a process by which we take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, chapter twelve turns to a different role played by breath, one that is crucial to the activities of our species, breath as a means to control the voice.

Chapter 13 describes the process and challenges of lung transplant. As mentioned in the discussion of pulmonary fibrosis, lung tissue is rather delicate material, and so it was no easy task to transplant it. Furthermore, because the lungs are a point at which the external world (air) contacts the body’s internal systems the challenges are even greater than for those organs that are hermetically sealed within bodily tissues.

The last two chapters focus on cystic fibrosis (CF.) Chapter fourteen explores the nature of the disease and the slow, but promising, path towards treating it. CF is a genetic condition in which the lack of a single amino acid wreaks havoc on the ability of cells to process minerals. The last chapter tells the story of two cases of CF. The first story – involving a ten-year-old whose family had to struggle against a policy that essentially locked their child out of the lung transplant list – is particularly engrossing.

As someone who practices breathwork, I found this book to be interesting and insightful. While it is heavily focused on pulmonary medicine, it does offer insights that will be beneficial to those who are not afflicted by respiratory ailments. If one wants to know more about medicine as it pertains to respiration, this is definitely an interesting and readable choice. However, even if one is infatuated with breath more generally, I believe you’ll find in this volume a great deal of beneficial food-for-thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Spillover by David Quammen

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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SPILLOVER is a fascinating and in-depth exploration of zoonoses – i.e. diseases that can jump from various animal species into humans. This continues to be a germane topic in the face of our current zoonotic pandemic – COVID-19. The book came out in 2012 / 2013, but has seen a groundswell of interest because it’s the most well-known popular work on this subject. One will read a few sentences in the book that seem prescient, but the author and the many experts he consults would be the first to state that this is no act of mystical precognition. Rather, a zoonotic pandemic seems to be an inevitability given humanity’s huge and growing population and the nature of our interactions with the rest of the animal kingdom. Of course, no one could say precisely when or what pathogen would lead to “the next big one,” of which – it so happens – we are currently amid. Though coronaviruses do come up as potential candidates, but so do others (e.g. certain strains of influenza.)

The book is organized differently than most. It’s cut up into bite sized chunks, with 115 chapters that are usually not more than a few pages each. However, chapters aren’t the relevant unit of interest so much as the book’s nine parts, each of which takes on a particular zoonosis, or class thereof. Because zoonoses are such a huge topic, the author focuses on a few that are of particular interest for varied reasons, including: the challenge of tracking the disease’s origins, the potential to be the next big one, the global influence of some diseases, as well as other reasons a particular zoonosis generates an interesting story.

The first part explores one of the lesser known zoonoses (except for in locales where outbreaks have occurred, e.g. Australia,) Hendra virus. While a common species of bat (the flying fox) is the reservoir for Hendra, what makes the story gripping for humans is that humans contract the disease through the intermediary of horses. While interaction with exotic wildlife is the the mode throughout the book, the fact that, here, transmission occurs from one of humanity’s closest animal friends increases the closeness-to-home effect.

Part two shifts into one of the most dramatic and well-known of the zoonoses, Ebola virus. Ebola is familiar from Richard Preston’s book “Hot Zone,” though Quammen does explain how Preston sensationalized and overstated the physical effects of the disease. [Presumably what Preston did was take the most vicious looking case and describe it through as dramatic of analogies as possible, such that it became unrecognizable from the typical case.] At any rate, it’s a disease that grabs one by the fear center because – while it doesn’t spread readily – it’s highly lethal and is unarguably an unpleasant way to go.

Part three delves into malaria and P. falciparum, the bug that causes it. Malaria has profoundly shaped human existence in the tropics. A vector-borne disease carried and passed by mosquitos, Malaria is widespread throughout much of the world and continues to generate debilitating effects. Many concepts are drilled into one while reading this book, and one worth mentioning here is the differentiation of reservoirs and vectors. A lot of the stories in this book revolve around scientists’ searches for reservoirs – the species where the pathogen resides in waiting. It’s often much more difficult to uncover a reservoir species than it is a vector (vectors invariably coming into direct contact with humans, whereas reservoirs can be far removed from humans.)

Part four investigates Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS.) This is one of the most relevant sections because SARS is a corona virus — like COVID-19 — and it served as a harbinger of a corona virus pandemic. SARS is also at least vaguely familiar to most people as it was a relatively recent epidemic.

The next two sections zoom out a bit and, instead of diving down into one zoonosis, they each consider a range of bacterial and viral zoonoses, respectively. Part five discusses Q fever, Lyme disease, Psittacosis, and other bacterial diseases that enter humans by way of other animals. Part six explores a range of viral diseases and – in the process – gives a bit of a lesson as to why viruses present such a risk as well as how different viruses work. This section covers rabies and Nipah virus.

Part seven tells the story of the search for the Marburg virus origin and reservoir. Marburg is similar to Ebola, but the story of the epidemiological search for it makes for intriguing reading. Part eight discusses HIV-AIDS and its simian predecessor, SIDS. What made this fascinating to me was that I learned that HIV has been around (at least) since the first decade of the twentieth century. If you’re like me, you associate the origin of AIDS with the 1980’s. However, with so many people regularly dying from so many different conditions in central Africa, it wasn’t obvious that those killers were getting an added help from a virus that crippled immune systems. It also took scientist a while to realize that SIDS was resulting in the death of chimpanzees. (It’s possible for a reservoir to be unaffected by a disease, and this is what they first thought to be the case.)

The final part is a wrap up that zooms out to look at the nature of episodes of ecological imbalance and “outbreaks” of species. In this case, “outbreak” is used to describe any explosion of population growth of a species. While the section opens with a species of caterpillars [forest tent caterpillars] that would occasionally flare up, killing off trees on a large scale, it discusses human population growth as an outbreak that – like all others – will inevitably end one way or another. This section also discusses influenza (which isn’t a major topic earlier in the book,) presumably because it had been the lead candidate at the time for the “next big one.” And “the next big one” is a related overarching theme in this section.

The book is annotated and has an extensive bibliography. There are few graphics, but there are maps that are helpful for those who aren’t familiar with the areas where many of these disease outbreaks originated (e.g. central Africa.)

I found this book to be intriguing. It teaches the reader some basics of epidemiology as it goes about telling the story of the spread of these diseases. [e.g. It will help one distinguish virulence and transmissibility – terms that are often used by neophytes interchangeably, but which are distinct in important ways.] However, the focus is always on the story and, therefore, it keeps these lessons interesting throughout. I’d highly recommend this book for those who are interested in the pandemic, zoonoses, or the challenges of combating disease.

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