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: 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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BOOK REVIEW: How To Make a Zombie by Frank Swain

How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind ControlHow to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control by Frank Swain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title of this book might lead you to believe that it’s either frivolous or that it’s an examination of a successful sci-fi subgenre. In fact, the book presents some serious (if disturbing, and often unsuccessful) science on two concepts that are disparate except by way of analogy of the Zombie – the brain-obsessed walking undead popularized in film and fiction. Those two ideas are: 1.) how definitive of a state is death, can people be brought back from it, and – if so – under what conditions and at what costs? 2.) is it possible to completely usurp an individual’s will, and – if so – by what means?

The book consists of seven chapters that are topically organized. The first chapter introduces the idea of Zombies, discussing early reporting on them from interested parties visiting the cane fields of the Caribbean. But it also delves into the idea of how drugs and freezing might create temporary death (or the appearance of death) from which individuals can be [partially or fully] successfully roused.

Chapter two explores the history of research about how to bring a deceased person back from the dead. Squeamish readers should be forewarned there is discussion of such things as partial dogs (i.e. the head end) being temporarily revived. The book touches on various ideas related to resuscitation. There is a discussion of one researcher’s study of katsu, techniques used in judo and jujutsu to revive an individual who has lost consciousness [or worse.] Near Death Experiences [NDE] and Out-of-Body [OoB] are also covered. These strange phenomena reported by revived individuals are too common to ignore, but — while they are often presented as evidence of an afterlife and /or the divine, there’s little reason to believe that they aren’t perfectly natural phenomena. [e.g. Neuroscientists are able to induce an OoB with a carefully placed electrode.]

Chapter three shifts gears from the question of death and resuscitation to the one of mind control. While the bulk of the chapter is devoted to pharmaceutical approaches to mind control, it also examines mind control by other means – e.g. authority as an agent of mind control as seen in the famous Milgram experiments, as well as hypnosis. Most of the drug related sections deal with psychedelics (and their naturally occurring precursors.) Swain describes the CIA’s varied shenanigans with LSD in MK-Ultra, Operation Midnight Climax, and the Frank Olsen death. [Long story short, you can’t control someone’s mind with psychedelics, but you can still achieve some despicable ends.]

Chapter four continues the exploration of mind control, but focuses on more invasive approaches — from lobotomies to electro-stimulation. Of course, even as these procedures got more sophisticated, they could still only reliably make vegetables.

If you think the history of lobotomies from chapter four was as scary as it can get, I’ve got news for you. Chapters five and [particularly] six are the ones that I found both the most fascinating and by far the most terrifying. These chapters, together, uncover how mind control is achieved in the natural world by parasitic creatures. Clearly, if there is any risk of successfully taking over a human will, it will not be with doses of Acid or icepicks stuck in the brain, it will be from figuring out how some of nature’s parasitic masters of mind control do it and copying from their playbooks.

Chapter five discusses wasps and fungi that successful take over their [fortunately non-human] hosts. I wasn’t familiar with how many mind-controlling wasps there are, but I had heard of the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Said fungus infects an ant, steers it up into a tree, forces it to secure itself by locking in its mandibles onto a branch, and then the fruiting body blooms out of the ant’s frickin’ scull. It’s chapter six, however, where things really get creepy. There’s an extended discussion of rabies, but the wildest part was a discussion of Toxoplasma gondi. T. gondi likes to infect cats, but if it can’t find a cat, it’ll infect a rodent and selectively (not only turn off the rat’s fear of cats but also) make the rat attracted to cats. What’s fascinating is that all of the rat’s other usual fears remain intact (bright lights, sharp noises, etc.)

The last chapter is on the various intriguing things that happen after a person dies — from cannibalism to organ harvesting. I think the most interesting discussion to me, however, was one about keeping a brain-dead accident victim alive long enough that her baby could live to term within her. (There was also an intriguing – if unnerving – case of a mother who wanted her deceased son’s sperm harvested.)

The book’s only graphics are black and white photos at the head of each chapter, but it is footnoted and has a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.

I found this book riveting. I learned a lot from it. The cases are presented in amusing and enthralling ways. If you are interested in the questions of what it means to be dead and how safe your free will is, this is an engrossing look at those subjects. I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman

The Immune System: A Very Short IntroductionThe Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a volume in the “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] series put out by Oxford University Press on a wide variety of scholarly subjects. As the series title suggests, the central objective of AVSI books is to pack as much of the fundamentals of a topic into as slim a package as possible. I read quite a few of these to get the gist of a subject without a lot of extraneous information. In short, they are brief and provide a high caliber understanding of the topic, but they aren’t written to be entertaining and they assume a basic scientific literacy. They usually weigh in at between 100 and 200 pages. (In this case, 144 pp.)

I found the seven chapters were optimally arranged. Chapter 1 describes and delineates the immune system, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. Putting the immune system inside neat borders is hard. If you simply describe it as the body’s defensive system, you quickly run into problems at the edges of competing classification. Sure, B cells and T cells are clearly part of the immune system, but what about skin and mucus membranes? Where does the lymphatic system end and the immune system (which uses it extensively) begin?

Chapters two and three explore the two major divisions of the immune system: the innate and the adaptive. These days, with COVID-19 at the center of global attention, the distinction is probably clear to most. The innate system isn’t geared to take on specific invaders. It has the advantage of being able to fight almost any invader, but the disadvantage of not being able to keep up with invaders that grow rapidly, are good at disguise, or both. An adaptive system response is what we all lack for COVID-19 because it only recently jumped to our species (well not “all of us,” those who had it and are recovered have adaptive immunity and that’s why they don’t have to worry about getting it again [those who have properly working immune system, at least.]) The adaptive response recognizes specific invaders and can raise an army against them tremendously quickly. Vaccines train the adaptive system to build such a response (typically by injecting a weakened strain into the body, but more detail is provided in the final chapter.)

Chapter four is entitled “making memories,” and it is an extension of chapter three. It further investigates adaptive immunity by focusing on the question of how the body develops a memory of those invaders it’s crushed in the past (or that it learned to crush by way of vaccination.)

The next two chapters delve into the two opposing ways the immune system can fail. Chapter five is about immunological failure, or how and why the body sometimes isn’t up to defeating invading adversaries. Most famously this is seen in HIV / AIDS patients, but there are other ways that the system fails in its job as the body’s bouncer. Chapter six looks at what happens when the immune system is too aggressive. [It’s important to realize that not only does the immune system check out foreign bodies, it also checks the tags on the body’s own cells, killing those that don’t display a proper “tag.”] The two major categories of over-performance are: autoimmune disorders (when the body wrongly attacks its own cells) and allergies (when the body goes all “This is Sparta!” on relatively benign foreign objects.)

The last chapter looks briefly at what work is being done in medicine these days involving the immune system, including approaches to vaccines, immunotherapy, biological therapies, and work on inflammation and the how the immune system is linked to aging.

If there was one topic I wish was better (more extensively) handled it would be discussion of what is known about how and why lifestyle choices influence immune system operation. There was a mention of how smoking has been linked to a specific immune system deficiency, and a general comment on how diet and exercise appear to be linked to increased effectiveness of autophagy (the body’s process of self-consumption and recycling of cells,) but that’s pretty much it. As there is a lot to cover in a small space, it’s hard to be too critical about this, but it seems like a crucial topic (if not as scientifically sexy as vaccine research, which is discussed relatively extensively.)

I found this book did as advertised, give me the immune system basics in a quick read. It has simple illustrations to support the text, and has a table of abbreviations — which can be beneficial given the hugely abbreviately nature of the immune system physiology. There is also a “further reading” section, but it’s heavily focused on textbooks – versus presenting popular science books that cover the material in a more light and entertaining manner.

I’d highly recommend this book if you have a basic scientific literacy and want just the facts on immunity without a lot of meandering narrative.

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BOOK REVIEW: New Theories of Everything by John D. Barrow

New Theories of EverythingNew Theories of Everything by John D. Barrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book reflects upon the various elements that any Theory of Everything (ToE) would have to reconcile. A ToE is the holy grail of physics, a theory that would unify the various forces to explain the nature of the universe as we experience it. There have been many attempts to achieve a ToE, but it remains elusive. There is the mathematically beautiful and elegant string theory that suffers that one drawback of having no experimental support. There are those who have given up on a ToE in the sense that the term is normally used, suggesting that the desired degree of unification isn’t possible and that the desire to think it must be is just wishful thinking.

Probably the most useful piece of information about this book for one considering reading it is its readability. As works of popular science go, it’s more challenging that most (but not as difficult as, for example, Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”) [I have little doubt that those who read physics textbooks will find it a walk in the park.] It has few equations, and the mathematics it does present is elementary. However, it does explore quite complicated ideas. The book uses graphics to assist, mostly diagrams, but many of these require thoughtful consideration in their own right.

The organization of the book is based on an eightfold way (no relation to the Buddhist eightfold path) – that is, eight ingredients with which a ToE must be consistent. The nine chapters of the book begin with a brief opening chapter that sets up the rest of the book by discussing what a ToE would really explain (“everything” isn’t necessarily the answer in a strict meaning of that word), what the eight components are, how pre-scientific ToE’s operated, as well as introducing the recurring concept of algorithmic compressibility. (The importance of compressibility lies in the idea that in order to make the equations describing the universe more concise it’s necessary that the data describing the universe be “compressible” – i.e. have some underlying order.)

After the intro chapter, the eight subsequent chapters are logically arranged into the aforementioned eightfold way. These are: 1.) laws, 2.) initial conditions, 3.) the nature of forces and particles, 4.) the constants of nature, 5.) symmetries and the breaking thereof, 6.) organizing principles, 7.) Bias and selection effects, and 8.) to what extent mathematics is integral to the universe. Some of these elements (e.g. the laws and constants) we are told couldn’t vary by much and allow us to still exist. So, the question addressed in the book isn’t only how can science get to a theory that explains the existence of a stable(-ish) universe, but further one that can support complex and intelligent life. The chapters on symmetry breaking and selection effects are particularly relevant to this discussion.

One of the most interesting discussions is the last. Chapter nine, entitled: “Is ‘pi’ really in the sky?” discusses the question of how fundamental mathematics is to the universe. It’s long been a topic of scientific intrigue that there seems to be no particular reason for mathematics to be as effective as it is at describing the way the universe works. The discussion has resulted in a wide range of replies from those who say the success of mathematics is more illusory and limited than it appears to be, to those who believe the universe not only is written in mathematics but is math (see: the work of Max Tegmark.) That is, some say that there are parts of a stable universe that must be orderly enough to be described mathematically and those are the only parts we truly understand as of yet. Others say mathematics is the bedrock of the universe.

I enjoyed this book, and found the organizational approach helped a great deal in thinking about the problem. I doubt I grasped everything the author was trying to convey, but it was a book piled high with food for thought for anyone interested in thinking about the nature of the universe. If you’re interested in the grand-scale questions, I’d recommend this book. That said, there are more readable takes on the subject out there if one is looking for light pop science fare.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

The Science of StorytellingThe Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Many books have been published on the science of story since the realization that storytelling is as fundamental to humanity as tool-making and bipedalism. The first such book that I reviewed was Lisa Cron’s 2012 “Wired for Story.” So, the question of interest isn’t whether the topic is fascinating (it is) but – instead – whether Storr’s book offers value-added. I believe it does. While Cron and Storr cover some of the same territory, the differences in approach lead to variations in the material covered and the emphasis given. Storr orders his book around his particular method of story building, which he refers to as “the sacred flaw approach.” He proposes that at the heart of a story is an erroneous assumption to which the lead character wishes to cling. This is where he tries to stake his claim among the vast number of books offering advice on story – i.e. by focusing on character flaw, rather than on the sequence of events (i.e. plotting.)

The appeal of this topic will vary according to who’s asking, but for writers there’s certainly a desire to unravel the mystery of story. Every story builder would like to venture into new and uncharted territory, but there seem to be key criteria around which stories live or die. The most glaring illumination of this can be seen when filmmakers spend tens or hundreds of millions on films that utterly flop, and when they spend that much money and flop it’s not because the CGI was hinky. It’s inevitably because the story lacked appeal. At its worst, this has led to strategies such only rebooting films that have worked in the past, and at it’s best it results in following one of the many fixed patterns (e.g. Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey.”) Understanding the science of story offers the hope of being able give one’s audience what they need to find a story fulfilling without following a beat-by-beat sequencing from a manual — in the manner of a pre-flight checklist.

The book is divided into four chapters that are designed to look at story through its various levels, and within each chapter there are many subsections. The chapters are: 1.) creating a world; 2.) the flawed self; 3.) the dramatic question; and 4.) plots, endings, and meaning. Chapter 1 isn’t just advice about how to build the story environment, but rather it looks at how our brains take in and model the world as written so that one can use that knowledge to more smartly approach presenting a world. As one might guess, chapter two is a crucial one because it introduces the study of characters and their flaws, and why said flaws are critical to the appeal of a story. The author also addressed differences between Eastern and Western approaches to story and I found the discussion of culture to be an intriguing inclusion. Chapter three continues the work of the second by focusing on how the interaction of subconscious and conscious minds contribute to a protagonist’s problems. In keeping with the coverage of culture, there’s a section that looks at stories as tribal propaganda that was quite insightful. The final chapter examines how plots and good endings arise as a logical result from setting up the character.

There’s an appendix that lays out Storr’s “Sacred Flaw Approach.” This is the approach that he teaches in his writing course. The book is also annotated, though it is text-centric and doesn’t employ much in the way of graphics.

I found this book fascinating. It does rehash some of the same examples as other books on story (e.g. “The Godfather” movie,) that’s simply because those stories are widely known and thus have broad usefulness. But there were plenty of insights to keep me intrigued, even having read other books on the topic. If you’re interested in the science of storytelling, this book is worth giving a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Meditation [also sold as Altered Traits] by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and BodyThe Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body by Daniel Goleman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book has been sold under the title listed above as well as the less prosaic title, “Altered Traits.” The switch may represent a lack of confidence that the coined term “altered traits” would catch on, and / or a desire to market the book as broadly as possible.

“Altered Traits” is a play on the more well-known term “altered states [of consciousness.]” The idea being that meditation (as well as many other activities from consuming psychoactive drugs to having a shamanistic drum rave) create a change from the ordinary waking state of consciousness, but what the authors wanted to focus more upon is the long-term and sustained changes that result from extended meditation practice. (Hence, coining the term “altered traits.”) These sustained changes are a prevalent theme through out the book. This makes sense as one of the co-authors, Richard Davidson, is well-known for investigating the brains and brain activity of monks and yogis with extremely advanced practices (tens of thousands of hours in meditation.) Still, the prosaic title, “The Science of Meditation,” may make more than marketing sense because the book does discuss the scientific research on meditation pretty broadly.

Both Goleman and Davidson are long time meditators as well as being subject matter experts in psychology and brain science. This is a major strength of the book. Some scientists are dismissive of practices that have origins in spiritual practices and have blindsides or are prone to oversimplifications because of that bias. On the other hand, that bias isn’t helped by the fact that meditation experts often oversell meditation as a practice that will do everything from spontaneously cure your cancer to allow you to levitate six feet in the air. The authors of this book aren’t afraid to call out such spurious claims, but aren’t dismissive of practices of religious or spiritual origin. The authors also spend a fair amount of time criticizing past scientific investigations of meditation (including their own) on the basis of naivete about the nature of the practices. A major problem has always been an “apples and oranges” grouping together of practices that are different in potentially important ways. There have also been all the problems that plague other disciplines as well (small sample size, poor methodology, etc.) These discussions won’t mean much to most readers, but are helpful to those who want a better idea which studies are gold standard and which are weak. That said, the book doesn’t get bogged down in technical issues.

The book opens by laying out some of the important differences between various meditation practices and trying to educate readers who may either not know much about meditation or may know it only from the perspective of a single discipline. Goleman and Davidson suggest one way of thinking about different kinds of meditation is in terms of “the deep and the wide.” The former being sectarian practitioners who practice specific ritualized practices in an intense way. The latter being more secular practitioners whose practices may borrow from different domains. They present a more extensive classification scheme than this simple bifurcation, making it more of a continuum. Later in the book, they consider ways in which practices might be categorized (e.g. Attentional, Constructive, and Deconstructive) but it’s emphasized that there isn’t currently an agreed upon schema.

Throughout the book, one gets stories of the authors experience in investigating this subject. This included trying to get monks to allow themselves to be studied, even with a letter from the Dalai Lama. It also covers the challenge of trying to build interest in the subject in an academic setting that once thought of meditation as little more than voodoo.

The middle portion of the book has a number of chapters that address particular types of practices and the specific effects they have (and haven’t) been found to have. These include developing a more compassionate outlook and behavior (ch. 6), improved attention (ch. 7), negation of pain and physical ailments (ch. 8 & 9), and meditation / mindfulness as part of a psychotherapeutic approach. The authors repeatedly point out that these practices were never intended for the purpose of treating ailments (mental or physical,) though they do seem to show benefits in a number of domains outside of what the spiritual seekers who brought them to prominence intended of them.

The chapters toward the book’s end focus heavily on investigations into advanced meditators, and the altered traits and brain changes seen in them.

There are few graphics in the book, but it’s annotated and has an “additional resources” section in the back.

I’d highly recommend this book. The authors’ mixed background gives them a good vantage point to provide an overview of the subject, and also allows them to tap into stories of their experiences which make the book more interesting than it otherwise would be.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and DreamsWhy We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For a long time, the questions of why we sleep and dream remained unanswered — or answered speculatively in ways that proved without merit. One presumes the reasons are potent because there seems to be little evolutionary advantage in spending a third of one’s life unconscious of one’s environs and paralyzed (literally in REM sleep, but for all intents and purposes in NREM sleep as one can’t respond to changes in the environment without some part of one’s brain taking note of said changes.) The good news is that Matthew Walker’s book offers insight into what scientists have learned about why we sleep, why we dream, why we become so dysfunctional without doing both, and what it is about modern life and its technologies that has created an apparent crisis of sleep loss. Walker goes beyond the science to discuss what individuals and institutions can do to reduce the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.

The downside of this book is that it’s a bit alarmist, and in contrast to many books of this nature one doesn’t get a good indication of the quality of studies reported. Some pretty brazen claims are made and the reader doesn’t necessarily know if they are preliminary and unvalidated or if they are well established. Here, I’m speaking about the studies that try to isolate out the effect of sleep loss versus all other factors (which is a notoriously messy affair,) and not so much studies that report on the physiological effects of sleep and sleep loss (which I see less reason to not take at face value.) At any rate, any reader who doesn’t fall asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow and sleep straight through 7 hours and fifty-five minutes — waking 5 minutes before the alarm — is likely to feel doomed if they take this book too seriously. And if you ever engaged in shift-work (as I have) or had an intense travel schedule, you are likely to feel that your life is permanently and irretrievably wrecked.

I know this is a book on sleep, but I think it went a little too far in marginalizing all other elements of health and well-being. Walker said that he used to tell people that sleep, nutrition, and exercise were the trifecta of good health, but he ultimately concluded that sleep was more important because diet and exercise were adversely impacted by sleep loss. I don’t disagree that diet and exercise are harmed by sleep loss, but – of course – sleep quality is harmed by lack of proper diet and exercise as well. The author later discusses research confirming this two-way street. I, therefore, have no idea why he changed his initial balanced and reasonable view with one that suggests sleep is the 800-pound gorilla of health and well-being.

The book’s 16 chapters are divided into four parts. Part I (Ch. 1 – 5) lays out what sleep is, how rhythms of sleep are established / disrupted, how much sleep one needs, and how one’s sleep needs change throughout the course of one’s life. Part II (Ch. 6 – 8) explores the benefits of sleeping as well as describing the nature of the damage caused by lack of sufficient sleep. Part III (Ch. 9 – 11) shifts the focus to dreams, and delves into what they appear to do for us. The final part (Ch. 12 – 16) investigates the many ways in which modern life disrupts sleep from blue light in LED’s to arbitrary school and work schedules to cures that are worse than the ill (i.e. sleeping pills.)

There is an appendix that summarizes twelve key changes that an individual can make to get more and better sleep. There are graphics throughout the book, mostly line-drawn graphs to provide visual clarity of the ideas under discussion.

I found this book interesting and informative. I would recommend it for anyone interested in the science of sleep or how they might sleep better, with the exception of anyone who has anxiety about the state of his or her health and well-being. While I understand that Dr. Walker wants to drive changes regarding views and policies that have been wrong-headed or deleterious regarding sleep, I feel he went too far toward suggesting the sky is falling for anyone who gets less than a perfect night’s sleep every night of his life.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of The Big Bang Theory by Mark Brake

The Science of The Big Bang Theory: What America's Favorite Sitcom Can Teach You about Physics, Flags, and the Idiosyncrasies of ScientistsThe Science of The Big Bang Theory: What America’s Favorite Sitcom Can Teach You about Physics, Flags, and the Idiosyncrasies of Scientists by Mark Brake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The good news is that this book is full of fascinating tidbits from the history of science, the history of science fiction, and the pop culture phenomena that is the television show, “The Big Bang Theory.” The bad news is that it may not at all be the book that you are expecting if you take the title literally. That it’s not the book it seems like it would be could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what your interests and science background are.

Let me explain. Say you are a super-fan of the show with an education in physics and you want to know something like: which Dutch researchers Sheldon thinks Leonard is ripping off and how, or: what the monopoles are that the four male leads go to the North Pole in search of [and why,] you won’t learn anything about those things in this book. You won’t have any more insight about what the scientists on the show – be it Raj Koothrappali to Leslie Winkle — are working on, or what those vaguely referenced scientific terms and discussions mean. You won’t learn about what any of the equations on those dry erase boards mean, and whether it’s gibberish or real science. As I mentioned, this may be a good thing because the topics that are mentioned off-hand on the show are often complex and difficult, e.g. Bose-Einstein Condensates, and most readers would be lost in such discussions. That said, if you are looking for such discussions and clarifications, you absolutely won’t find them in this book.

This book is aimed more at a reader with a high school science education, an interest in science fiction, and who would like to learn some quirky facts about science and science fiction while they are regaled and reminded of fun moments from their favorite episodes of the show. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that this was a collection of essays written long ago, and then the author said something like, “Hey, I have this essay about volcanoes, in episode ___, _____ makes a random comment about volcanoes. I could put some dialogue from that episode at the front of the chapter, sprinkle in a few references to the show in the text of the chapter, and recycle a whole box of columns, putting together a science-pop culture crossover book.”

The 31 chapters are organized into four parts entitled, “Space,” “Time,” “Machine,” and “Monsters,” respectively. That said, organization isn’t the strong-suit of the book. The eight chapters in the “Time” section seem to have more to do with chemistry than time, per se. The “Machine” section does better, but discusses concepts like fire and volcano that are no more connected to that theme than to any of the others. It’s really a disparate collection of essays on various science and science fiction related topics.

I may sound like I’m panning this book, but I enjoyed it, overall. Now, if I’d have shelled out the cover price thinking I was getting the book that the title suggests, I’d be royally cheesed off. So, know what you’re getting and decide accordingly. If you have an interest in the history of science and science fiction, you’ll probably find the book intriguing and worth reading. If you have a high-level understanding of physics and want to learn about the physics they mention in “The Big Bang Theory” television series, you will be sorely disappointed.

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