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review 2018-06-17 21:33
The Double Helix
The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA - James D. Watson

Gossip, backstabbing, petty squabbles, arrogance, snobbishness, and misogyny take a front row seat in this personal account of how the double helix structure of DNA was discovered. 


I expected more from Watson's book. 


And then there is the question about Rosalind Franklin's contribution to the discovery.


While Watson does spend some time in the epilogue to credit Franklin for her work on the subject, it seems too little, too late. He spends the entire book painting her as an uncooperative, dour, argumentative, bossy, frump with an "acid smile" in a career mostly reserved for unattractive women who have little chance of catching a husband. (He actually introduces her in the book in almost exactly those terms.)


Oh, and there is little explanation of the structure of DNA itself. It really is more of an account of his thoughts on girls, stomach pains, and on the personal lives of people Watson encountered when working on the project. 

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review 2018-06-17 16:54
The Science of Everyday Life
The Science of Everyday Life - Marty Jopson

I had started this book with the intention to comment on each chapter - or part, as each section contained smaller chapters on the various topics of the book - but as so often, I ended up finishing the book before I could summarise my notes for each part. 


I much enjoyed the buddy read of this with Murder by Death, who is infinitely more patient with books than I am. Unlike her, I am not just a bit biased by my admiration for Helen Czerski's Storm in a Teacup, I fully enjoyed - and have no regrets - about Storm in a Teacup spoiling Marty Jopson's attempt here at making science accessible to the general reader. 

It is not that The Science of Everyday Life was a bad book - it wasn't! - it is just that the brevity of descriptions and eclectic selection of topics really makes an entertaining introduction to science for people who think they don't like or want to know about science. I am just not Jopson's target reader here. (But I am, evidently, Czerski's target audience.)

For what it is, tho, Jopson does an excellent job at showing how science is the basis of everything around us - from the colour of autumn foliage to the workings of toothpaste to why sheep don't shrink in the rain (despite wearing woolly jumpers) and why people shrivel up in the bathtub.

Each topic is explained just briefly enough to gather interest but not leave you bored with pages and pages of explanation.


Again, I wish there had been more explanation and connection between the topics, but this was not in the scope of this book.


I should add, tho, that there was one chapter that left me baffled and criticising its content - the part about the boomerang did nothing for me. I could not follow the description of the experiment and could not understand the explanation that was offered for how a boomerang works. I had to google the answer and explanation here.

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review 2018-01-28 23:56
Storm in a Teacup
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets. It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but no real use to adults. An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic. But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere. A toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself. Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the kitchen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.


I'm re-using the above quote (already used in a progress update) because it truly describes the book's take on science and getting people interested in the subject(s) of science.


I really enjoyed this book. I have a both a personal and professional interest in science, but am neither a scientist nor engineer, which makes me somewhat of an oddball in my family.

While much of this is due to other interests and perhaps a smidgeon of defying parental expectations, I cannot help but think that having a maths/physics teacher and a chemistry teacher who were truly awful at explaining things. To give an example, I once asked my mum, a chemical engineer, for help with my chemistry homework. Thirty minutes later we were discussing it over the phone with her friends from work, also experts in the field, with the outcome that they all concluded that the proposed homework assignment was nonsense as the chemical reaction proposed would not and simply could not occur... I can't say that this impressed my chemistry teacher. Thankfully, I left the country to go to school in the US after that particular year, and didn't have to take any chemistry after that.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about chemistry - and other sciences, since they are all related, but particularly chemistry - but I strongly believe that the way that science is taught plays a huge role in fostering interest, enthusiasm and even confidence in people, particularly young people, who want to learn about it.


This is where books like Storm in a Teacup come into play. I have seen a few books - and we certainly seem to have picked a few books for the Flat Book Society reads - that in some way failed to communicate with the reader. Communication and the ability to explain concepts and relationships, however, is crucial to producing a good science book.

Helen Czerski did a marvellous job at this. At least in my opinion. I have seldom found myself bored or talked down to. What is more, I could not wait to pick the book up again every night to read the next chapter. I also did not mind at all when I had to re-read a previous chapter to remind myself of a concept that had been explained earlier - which is my failing, or rather my reading too fast. There was a lot to absorb in the book despite Czerski's great efforts to use everyday objects like toasters, tea cups, a piece of buttered toast, a candle, ducks' feet, etc. to explain complex concepts of physics.


And for that reading experience alone - the inspiration to want to read more - I applaud Storm in a Teacup.


Previous Reading updates:


Update # 1

Update # 2

Update # 3

Update # 4

Update # 5

Update # 6

Update # 7


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review 2017-12-13 22:55
The Science of Discworld
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart


I usually try to start my reviews with a pertinent quote from the relevant book, but I was somewhat eager to return my copy to the library and I forgot to copy out a quotation for my review. However, it is somewhat appropriate to start the summary of my thoughts about The Science of Discworld with a quote from one of my favourite characters from the book - The Librarian.


Never said one word so much.


The Science of Discworld is an attempt to fuse the storyverse created by Terry Pratchett with non-fiction science. Through alternating chapters, we get to see how the Wizards of Discworld, with some help from Hex, create a roundworld very akin to Earth. And, yes, I smirked at the idea that book that spends a lot of time refuting creationism, is based on a story that features ... creationism.


(I should add that I am not a fan of or even giving credence to the theory/ies of creationism, but, equally, I am not a fan of arguments that are full of contradictions.)  


This is not the only aspect in which the book failed for me.


As much as I loved the Wizards - especially the Librarian - and Pratchett's Discworld, the science parts in this book just really did not work for me.


The book started out with a random discussion of quantum physics. I am not a scientist. My working knowledge of physics is basic. The opening chapters took a lot of effort because I actually found myself researching different things that the authors referred to on the internet. I don't mind do the research on topics I want to learn about if I feel that it will help me understand the rest of the book.


But not so here, the science parts seemed to jump from one topic to another without referring back to the previous ones. It was so confusing. And the difficulty level of the science parts differed throughout the book, too. It made me wonder what kind of a readership the authors were aiming for. Were they talking to people with pre-existing knowledge of quantum physics but not biology? Or maybe the authors just found it difficult to explain the topics they are experts in but didn't bother to go into the same depths about topics they may not be as familiar with?


I have no idea.


What is clear to me is that the authors of the science parts are not great at communicating. Apart from talking down to readers, or constantly contradicting themselves - for example, when they criticise the act of simplifying a concept to explain it to someone, which the authors decry as "lies to children", only to then use the same simplification to explain concepts to readers -, the authors of the science parts actually managed to ... and this is the dealbreaker ... they managed to make science boring.


And with that they made the book fail. Well, they managed to make half the book fail. The Wizard parts were delightful.


Previous status updates:


Update 1

Update 2

Update 3

Update 4

Update 5

Update 6

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review 2017-11-26 11:29
The Invention of Nature - Alexander von Humboldt's New World
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

Wulff's Invention of Nature was probably the best book I have read in all of 2017. 


Although, I knew of Humboldt (and his brother), I had no idea of the extent of his influence on the sciences and of the adventures he went on to gain the deep understanding of the world that he did.

I am still amazed at both.

I am still amazed at the difficulties he faced.

I am still amazed at everything I learned about his and his times from Wulff's extraordinary book. 


And, yet, I haven't managed to write a proper "review" for this book. Maybe it is because the books that have the most impact on me are usually the ones that are hardest to write about. 


So, instead of a review, I'll replicate my reading notes below:


Reading update - Part 1:

We snatch in vain at Nature's veil,

She is mysterious in broad daylight,

No screws or levers can compel to reveal

The secrets she has hidden from our sight.

I'm really enjoying this so far. I have a soft spot for Faust but had no idea that it was part inspired by Humboldt - or that he was so closely connected with the Weimar set.


What I am really enjoying in the book so far is how Wulf doesn't just throw in place names in the expectation that readers will be able to picture the scenes but manages to add snippets of description to highlight that the places in Humboldt's day were less developed and, more importantly, less accessible that any Google image or map search would have you believe.


I liked that she added that Weimar may have been an intellectual hot spot but it still had cattle being driven through its streets and that there was no reliable postal service - hence Goethe exchanging letters with Schiller in Jena by way of his greengrocer! I had to laugh at this one. I mean, imagine it...the letters of arguably the two most famous German literary figures delivered with the weekly shopping?


The other mentions I was curious about were that of Freiberg and that of the breathing mask and mining lamp Humboldt developed. I grew up not far from Freiberg, my dad went to uni there, and mining has shaped much of the region's history and landscape. 

Unfortunately, the book does not mention much about the two inventions, but I understand from other sources that the lamp was a forerunner of the Davy Lamp, which would have made a huge impact on working conditions in the mines. I am now curious about how exactly that lamp worked and the safety stats before and after the development of the lamp, but I'm not sure this is information that will be easy to dig up.


Looking forward to Part II already.



Reading update - Part 2:


In Part II of the book, we accompany Humboldt and Bonplant on their trip to first Tenerife and then South America. 


There is only one question that I keep coming back to after having read this part, and that is:


How on earth did they survive that trip?


Mauled by mosquitoes, surrounded by dozens of other things that could kill them (jaguars, house cats, boa constrictors, crocs, ..., parasites, ...) the list is nigh endless, and yet, they seem to have come away relatively unscathed. 


Even fever and dysentery could not stop them from crossing part of the Andes. The Andes!!


They had no gear to speak of, their shoes were useless, they suffered from severe altitude sickness, freezing conditions, and yet, they survived.


This is also the part where Humboldt comes face to face with slavery and becomes an abolitionist. I look forward to looking this section up in his travelogue. There were issues in rural Prussia at around the same time, where a system of serfdom still existed. This was eventually made illegal in 1807 (effective 1810). While there are obvious differences between the treatment of slaves as witnessed by Humboldt and the treatment of peasant serfs back in Prussia, I am curious to see if he mentions any correlation in his own writings. 


I was also hooked on the descriptions of the use of agriculture and the emerging idea how the reliance on cash cultures is a really shortsighted expression of greed at the expense of the community.


Part II ends with Humboldt's meeting with Thomas Jefferson, which to me was the least interesting part of this section.



Reading update - Part 3:


Part III - Sorting Ideas - tells about Humboldt's return to Europe, where he is received as a hero. At the same time, tho, Europe is in the middle of drastic changes brought on by the Napoleonic Wars.


Also on a personal level, Humboldt has to make adjustments as he is basically broke and needs to take on "a real job". 


I must say I really like how Wulf contrasts this part of the book with the previous part that was all about the big adventure. In this part, we can literally feel how Humboldt is slowly suffocated by the demands of living in a society that has so many demands on him. 


He's trying to spread knowledge of his discoveries and further his cause (to learn more about the world and then share it with the scientific community) but politics are now a major stumbling block.


He was just too far ahead, too egalitarian, and too liberal for his time!


Who'd have guessed Humboldt fell out with Napoleon???

Who'd have guessed Humboldt's reputation as a rebel would deny him access to India?

Who'd have guessed Humboldt was considered a rebel?


That part can't have been that easy for his brother to deal with, either, seeing that he was a Prussian diplomat.


What is most impressive and even whiplash inducing to just read about, tho, is how crazy busy Humboldt kept himself. He was like a squirrel on speed running from one appointment to the next, always on the go, attending up to five different salons per night on several days of the week. 


By the end of this part of the book, I can understand why he was longing to travel again. It seems that his mind is more focused and he is more at ease when he is off exploring.



Reading update - Part 4:


At the end of July, more than three months after leaving Berlin, Humboldt reached Tobolsk – 1,800 miles from St Petersburg and the most easterly point on the prescribed route – but it was still not wild enough for his taste. Humboldt had not come this far only to have to turn around. He had other plans. Instead of travelling back to St Petersburg as previously agreed, Humboldt now ignored Cancrin’s instructions and added a detour of 2,000 miles. He wanted see the Altai Mountains in the east where Russia, China and Mongolia met, as the counterpart to his observations in the Andes. As he had failed to see the Himalaya, the Altai was as close as he could get to collecting data from a mountain range in Central Asia.

I'm finding it hard to put this book down. He is such an unlikely rebel, and yet...he gets away with it.


Having been denied access to the Himalayas by the East India Company, and having returned to Berlin, Humboldt is dying to get out again.


I was so relieved when I read about his travels through Russia. Not only because the parts where he travels have been my favourites of the book, but also because I really hate seeing him cooped up.


And of course there several passages where I caught my breath, most notably where he basically upsets Cancrin, the czar's official delegate, by wanting to see the true living conditions of the eastern peasants and, the second, where he is so set on reaching his destination (also against the will of Cancrin) that he rode straight through a region plagued with an anthrax epidemic. Anthrax!!! WTF, Alex?

"As they sat in silence, hot and cramped behind tightly shut windows in their small carriages, they passed through a landscape of death. The ‘traces of the pest’ were everywhere, Humboldt’s companion Gustav Rose noted in his diary. Fires burned at the entrances and exits of the villages as a ritual to ‘clean the air’. They saw small makeshift hospitals and dead animals lying in the fields. In one small village alone, 500 horses had died."

I guess the views would have have been worth it:



As for the other parts, I enjoyed learning about how much Humboldt had influenced Darwin. I had never expected this.


I am, however, puzzled by the chapter about Thoreau. Not only was this the least interesting to me, but I found the description of Thoreau quite annoying.


While Humboldt and Darwin were scientists who were able to write well, Thoreau merely strikes me as a - somewhat lofty and self-indulgent - writer, but not really a scientist.

What was the point of including this chapter other than to illustrate Humboldt's influence across several continents?



Reading update - Part 5:


I am a little sad.


This was a fascinating book, and I loved the chapter that described the last years in Humboldt's life and the political changes that he was surrounded by, even tho for Humboldt the novelty of revolution had worn off because he had seen and been in the midst of so many of them.


As for the remaining chapters on Perkins, Haeckel, and John Muir, I am in two minds: We did not really need them to understand Humboldt and his times. But, they do illustrate - again - the far-reaching impact Humboldt and his work have had on a future generation that would lead to the birth of environmentalism. 


I appreciate the link that Wulf creates between the extraordinary Humboldt and the subsequent discussions that are still current affairs more than I criticise Wulf for meandering a little in the last three chapters


What a book! What a guy!

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