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: 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: Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins by Oné R. Pagán

Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal IntoxicationDrunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins: A Trip Through the World of Animal Intoxication by Oné R. Pagán
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Humanity’s proclivity to think ourselves above nature has led us to miss the fact that we aren’t the only intelligent creatures and that we share more in common with the rest of the animal kingdom than – perhaps – we’d like to think. Science’s recognition of this truth has spawned a vast collection of books on animal (and, for that matter, plant) intelligence as well as the other traits we share in common with different species. This book carves out an interesting niche in this literature by discussing how other creatures use psychoactive substances (i.e. what we think of as “drugs and alcohol.”) While people tend to think that we are alone not only with respect to intelligence, but also with respect to our vices, it turns out this doesn’t seem to be the case. Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about dolphins that play with blowfish or monkeys on magic mushrooms – e.g. what their internal experience of the substance is like, and to what degree consumption is purposeful versus accidental, but there is an increasing number of studies that suggest other species use drugs, and like it. The book also delves into the role plants play, particularly in producing substances that have psychoactive effects.

This book is humorous (the material is certainly there) and intriguing. It’s an easy pop science read, and avoids becoming too bogged down in the minutiae of biochemistry. That said, it does include graphics, such as chemical diagrams of psychoactive molecules, and does have to dip its toe into concepts of biology and chemistry. If you find the topic intriguing, you should give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: BrainComix by Jean-François Marmion

BraincomixBraincomix by Jean-François Marmion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This nonfiction graphic novel surveys the brain and what it does, including: sensory processing, memory, attention, unconscious activities, learning, language, emotional experience, etc. It also reviews some of the more intriguing brain disorders (e.g. synesthesia, apraxias, phantom limb syndrome, etc.) and what they tell us about the nature of the mind.

If you’re looking for a soup-to-nuts overview of the brain that covers the gist without getting in too deep, and which is quick and easy, this book is hard to beat. If you have read much about neuroscience, you probably won’t be introduced to anything new. The book employs the usual suspects of pop-sci neuroscience and cognitive psychology: Phineas Gage (i.e. rebar through the brain guy,) H.M. (i.e. couldn’t form new memories after brain surgery guy,) the rubber hand experiment, the gorilla basketball experiment, etc. However, because it’s such a quick and light read, it’s not much of an investment to review these topics, and – who knows – maybe you’ll retain more due to the graphics.

The premise is a simple one, the brain is being interviewed for a Larry King-style talk show that at times becomes a Jerry Springer-style show as “characters” (e.g. a neuron, a homunculus, the conscious mind, etc.) charge the stage to get in their two cents. This might not be the most creative or clever approach that could’ve been taken, but it also doesn’t distract from the objective of teaching about the brain – as a more intense plot might have done. The art is crudely drawn, though I suspect this is on purpose to make clear this is not a textbook, but rather a pop-sci book.

If you are looking for an introduction to the brain, you should check this book out. (Also, if you’re looking to review, quickly and concisely, you might find it of value as well.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short IntroductionPhilosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Excepting the final chapter, this wasn’t the book I expected, but it did raise some compelling questions. The book did devote more space to semantic and categorical questions than I found useful or interesting. These are the kinds of questions which philosophers may find joy in catching peers in paradoxes, but which are pure navel-gazing, offering no insights on how to achieve the well-lived life or to better understand the grand questions of the universe.

The book looks at the metaphysical and epistemological ramifications of evolution, species classification, genetic and memetic transmission, and the degree to which humans are or aren’t constrained by our evolutionary history. Among the questions I found most interesting were: Is it useful to speak in terms of “function” (i.e. “what a thing is for”) when discussing biological entities, given that those words seem to imply an intended purpose inconsistent with evolution? Does selection occur at the level of the individual, the group, or both? How does one reconcile the Mendelian notion of a “gene” with that of molecular biology? Lest one think Mendel’s ideas were partially formed and are now supplanted, they do internally explain dominance and recessivity, a thing molecular biology can’t yet do. Is it reasonable to apply the logic of evolution and heritability to the cultural domain?

I got a lot out of this tiny guide. It may have spent more time on semantics and categorization than I would have liked (as well as more time reviewing basic biological science,) but it did raise some intriguing questions that I didn’t anticipate as well as illuminating new dimensions of those I did. Your patience with the insubstantial questions will be a major factor in how much you get out of this book.

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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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