BOOK REVIEW: Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Plant Science for Gardeners: Essentials for Growing Better PlantsPlant Science for Gardeners: Essentials for Growing Better Plants by Robert Pavlis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: June 7, 2022

This book provides a basic overview of botany for gardeners. It’s written in a way that’s readable to a science neophyte, and both uses garden-relevant examples as well as considers biological concepts primarily as is germane to the ornamental plants and vegetables gardeners tend to cultivate.

The big takeaway for me was that gardeners are being sold bogus technologies and techniques that seem intuitively sound if one doesn’t have the requisite understanding of science to see where the fallacies lie. Throughout the book, there are sections that refute common botany myths. To give some examples, there’s the idea of painting over cut limbs that can trap water and contribute to rot, and there are soil treatments that are superfluous.

There were a couple of points at which I had to re-read to make sense of what was being said, not because it was complicated but because of issues like explanations that didn’t include all the information necessary for clarity or statements being made in such a way as to mislead the mind a bit. The two cases that spring to mind dealt in physics more than biology, so I couldn’t say whether this just reflects my limited understanding of botany – relative to that of physics. At any rate, I don’t believe any wrong information was given. There were just a couple instances where information was presented in a way that could be confusing, but – for the most part – the explanations were clear and seemed consistent with my understanding of the subject.

If you want to enhance your understanding of botany and some of the myths that lead to poor practices in the garden, you may want to look into this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Botany of Beer by Giuseppe Caruso

The Botany of Beer: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 Plants Used in BrewingThe Botany of Beer: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 Plants Used in Brewing by Giuseppe Caruso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 26, 2022

This is an excellent reference for those with a serious interest in beer, botany, or both of the above. For the amateur brewer, it offers insight into some new and exotic ingredients for experimental brews. For the amateur botanist, it offers greater understanding of how plants are used by mankind — in one prominent domain, at least. For the beer connoisseur, it provides examples of some brews with unusual ingredients that might just expand one’s palate. The book is well-organized, easy-to-use, and has some fine ancillary features to make it an even more valuable tool.

For each of the 500-ish plants, there’s an orderly entry. Entries are arranged alphabetically by scientific name, and the book also provides alternate names, as well as common names and variations. There are drawings that break parts of the plant out for better identification, and there are sections offering both physical and chemical textual descriptions of each plant. There are also sections listing related species and cultivars (cultivated variants.) There is a geographic section that describes, if known, the place of origin of the plant, as well as the domain the plant has expanded to, or in which it’s now cultivated. One section describes what parts of the plant are used in beermaking, another provides a list of the styles of beers the plant has been (or might be) used in, and another (where applicable) an example of a beer in which that ingredient is found. As applicable, there’s also information about plant toxicity and – in some cases – fun facts related to the plant’s use in brewing. There’s a glossary, bibliography, and common name index, as well.

I’d put the included plants into three categories: 1.) plants that are common cultivated foods somewhere on the planet (note: that doesn’t mean they will appear in grocery stores in your particular neck-of-the-woods;) 2.) trees whose wood is used in barrel-making or smoking, but aren’t ingredients, per se; and 3.) ingredients that aren’t likely to appear on your plate unless you’re a hardcore forager or a deep-dive foodie with connections to a botanist or native population.

I found this book to be a well-crafted guide to beer-relevant plants, and would recommend readers interested in beer (or – more broadly – food and beverage ingredients) give it a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural SciencesThe Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Paul Wigner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available online here

This brief essay asks why math proves so effective for describing / codifying physical laws, and whether our physical theories — built on (phenomenally successful) mathematics — offer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

There’s a popular story in which a drunk man is found on his hands and knees under a lamppost at night when a police officer comes along. The cops says, “What-cha doin’?” To which the drunk replies, “I dropped my keys, and I’m looking for them?” So, the cop says, “Well, they’re clearly not where you’re looking, why not look elsewhere?” And the drunk says, “Cuz this is where the light is.” I think this story can help us understand what Wigner is getting on about, if only we replace the drunk’s “light” with the scientist’s “elegant mathematics.” Wigner reflects upon why it should be that so many laws of nature seem to be independent from all but a few variables (which is the only way scientists could have discovered them –historically, mathematically, and realistically speaking.) On the other hand, could it be that Physics has led itself into epistemological cul-de-sacs by chasing elegant mathematics?

There’s no doubt that (for whatever the reason turns out to be) mathematics has been tremendously successful in facilitating the construction of theories that make predictions that can be tested with high levels of accuracy. However, that doesn’t mean that some of those theories won’t prove to be mirages.

A few of the examples used in this paper are somewhat esoteric and won’t be readily understood by the average (non-expert) reader. That said, Wigner puts his basic arguments and questions in reasonably clear (if academic) language. The essay is definitely worth reading for its thought-provoking insights.


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BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The One-Straw RevolutionThe One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I kept running into references to this book in my readings about food and farming, and, eventually, I figured it must be a must-read. One topic that’s of interest to me (and should be of interest to everyone) is how [or, perhaps, whether] humanity can be sustainably fed, given the realities of human nature. Fukuoka (d. 2008) was at the vanguard of what’s been called the “natural farming” movement (a term he admitted he didn’t love.) He spent decades growing rice, other grains, and fruits in rural Shikoku, Japan, using a minimalist approach.

The book mixes philosophy, biography, commentary on food / nutrition, and instruction in Fukuoka’s approach to agriculture. Guided by a philosophy of “wu wei” (i.e. “effortless action,”) Fukuoka figured out how to reduce the amount of effort and resources put into farming, while maintaining crop yields that were competitive with the standard farming model. His approach appears backwards, lazy, and unlikely to succeed. He didn’t plow his fields. He planted by casting seed into the previous crop before harvesting it (note: he alternated rice with winter grains.) He didn’t weed, but rather let white clover grow freely and used the stalks and chaff from one harvest as cover for the next (again, rotating crops,) a cover that biodegraded into nutrients. He used no chemicals, neither fertilizer nor insecticide. And yet, important details of his approach kept his yields up while using minimal resources to maximum effect by operating in accord with nature (e.g. no insecticides seems to risk infestation, but it also means that you haven’t killed the creatures that eat pests.)

Fukuoka’s philosophy combines the principles of nature, Buddhist & Taoist concepts, and – believe it or not — something reminiscent of Nihilism (without calling it such.) There are parts of the book that some might find disagreeable. For example, Fukuoka uses an analogy that draws on the Mahayanist view of the distinction between Mahayana and “Hinayana” that Theravadins may find offensive (fyi: the older branch of Buddhism considers “Hinayana” to be derogatory and believes it’s a label based on a mistaken belief.) [To be fair, Fukuoka explicitly stated that he belonged to no religion and he claimed no expertise on the subject.] More likely to take offense are scientists and agricultural researchers, a group who takes it from both barrels. [Fukuoka says his opposition to scientists is that they fill the same role in society as the discriminating mind plays in mental activity, and he values the non-discriminating mind.]

I found this book to be loaded with food-for-thought. It raises a number of questions that aren’t answered inside (e.g. is Fukuoka’s approach scalable?,) but it’s a fascinating and highly readable introduction to natural farming. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in the subject.


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Thermoclines in the Park [Free Verse]

Running through the park,
in the light of the rising sun,
I pass through a band of cool air,
and a little later,
pass through a band
of warm, humid air.

And, I wonder whether 
I'm having a stroke.

Isn't physics supposed 
to push the warm air over
into the cold,
or pull the cold air over
into the warm,
or both, 
and to keep doing so until
the air temperature
is an undifferentiated mass?

Had I stumbled into a
glitch in the Matrix?
Was the simulated weather 
breaking down?

Why was thermodynamics
misbehaving?
I had so many questions,
but so few answers.

And so many miles to go.

BOOK REVIEW: Karate Science by J.D. Swanson

Karate Science: Dynamic MovementKarate Science: Dynamic Movement by J.D. Swanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When I picked up this book, I did so with the hope that it would be to striking as Jiichi Watanabe’s excellent book “The Secrets of Judo” [now sold as “The Art and Science of Judo”] is to grappling. That didn’t turn out to be the case. If Watanabe’s book has a fifty / fifty split between science and judo, Swanson’s book is about 80 percent Karate manual and 20 percent science. It’s a fine book about karate techniques, but if you want to understand biomechanics and how to optimize your movement, I think you can do better (particularly, if you would like insights that apply beyond Okinawan Karate.)

The book had two failings, keeping it from living up to its potential. First, it didn’t use graphics as well as it could have to help the reader visualize what is being said, or to point out the subtleties under discussion. Second, it generally presents the science at a shallow level. I’d been pleased to see that there was a chapter on breath, because I think that’s one of the most important and under-discussed factors in any system of movement (martial or otherwise.) However, I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t much to it besides some philosophizing about ki-ai.

There were a few valuable tid-bits here and there, points about which the book adds to one’s scientific / bodily understanding. The best example of this is probably the discussion of Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP,) which is where the book most shines with respect to offering some food for thought.

If you study Okinawan Karate and are looking for discussions about the difference between how various schools perform techniques, this may be the book for you. However, if you’re expecting some science in a book entitled “Karate Science,” I suspect you can do better.


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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: Move by Caroline Williams

Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind FreeMove: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free by Caroline Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book presents a pop science accounting of some of the more interesting scientific literature on the benefits of moving one’s body – be it through dance, martial arts, walking, or otherwise. That being active is an important element of maintaining a healthy mind and body will come as no surprise. Still, there are a number of specific points this book makes that may come as a surprise to many, such as that those who do an hour of intense exercise a day but otherwise live desk warrior lives may not be as well off as they think.

As the topic (and the scientific literature from which the book draws) is huge, the author focuses specifically on the mental benefits of physical movement, both attitudinal / psychological benefits and cognitive benefits such as improved creative thinking or memory. I found the book’s organization to be beneficial, and – in particular – believe it was a smart move to include chapters on breath and rest – topics that are integral to a life of movement, but which might not spring to mind. Particularly, the chapter on breath discusses findings on synchronization of breath and movement more than does many books on breath or movement, as well as offering extensive discussion of the benefits of 3 and 6 breath per minute (bpm) breathing.

There are a lot of books out there on this subject – though usually they focus either on exercise or on a particular approach to movement. Those who read extensively on the topic may not find much that is new in this book. However, I think “Move” holds its own, and also distinguishes itself in some of its fine points of emphasis. Certainly, if one is looking for a book to introduce someone to the benefits of movement, this is a prudent choice.


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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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