Category Archives: Science

This Is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe

I have a fondness for parasites. Over the years I’ve loved reading about them in books like Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures and New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers: Tales of Parasites and People as well as hearing about them on programs like Radiolab. You can imagine how excited I got when I learned there was a new book on the way with the intriguing title of This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society. Right after hearing that news for several months I kept a watching eye on my public library in hopes it would purchase a few copies of Kathleen McAuliffe’s new book. As luck would have it my pubic library did not let me down. Once a copy become available I happily borrowed it.

As you can guess from the book’s complete title, what sets this book apart from other books devoted to these invasive little creatures is McAuliffe shows how some parasites are able to modify their host’s behavior so the host acts in ways that ultimately benefits the parasite. Probably the best known example of a parasite making a host do its bidding is that of Toxoplasma. When a rodent gets infected with Toxoplasma this teeny parasite alters the rodent’s brain so it’s now attracted to the scent of cats. This makes the rodent easy prey and thus increases the odds the cat will ingest the Toxoplasma parasite. After being ingested it’s eventually passed out of the cat only to be picked up again by another rodent. In addition to Toxoplasma, This Is Your Brain on Parasites also features other freaky parasites like a wasp larva that make spiders spin customized webs and a worm that cause crickets to drown themselves.

While at least one reviewer saw McAuliffe’s science as being “shaky” I thought her book made for interesting and entertaining reading. (Heck, not being a scientist I’m not in any position to say one way or another if McAuliffe knows what she’s talking about.) It also fired me up to read more books like hers, and one at the top of my list is Ed Yong’s recent book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. After hearing all kinds of good things about Yong’s book I can’t wait to read it.


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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016

Although I don’t read them at the rate I used to, I’m a big fan of anthologies. You know, those end of the year compilations featuring the year’s best writing in a particular genre, whether it’s short story, essay or mystery. While I don’t consider myself a true crime aficionado, I love The Best American Crime Writing, finding those collections hard to resist whenever an available copy surfaces at my public library. But the one anthology I’ve always loved is the Best American Science and Nature Writing. So when one of my book clubs voted to read The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I went running to the public library in search of a copy. After finding one, I leisurely plodded my way through it, reading the selections out-of-order just as I usually do with these anthologies. In the end, I was happy with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016.

Traditionally, the knock of these kind of books is they’re”uneven”, meaning some of the selections are great, some are OK and some, well are meh. With this particular offering, I didn’t get that feeling. Of the pieces chosen for inclusion by guest editor Amy Stewart only Amy Leach’s “The Modern Moose” was not to my liking. In what some might consider a no brainer, Stewart elected to include Kathryn Schulz’s outstanding Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker article on the horrors of a possible Cascadia mega quake “The Really Big One. ” (When her piece appeared in the New Yorker it generated a ton of buzz here in my fair city of Portland, Oregon.) On a bittersweet note, there’s a short offering from the late Oliver Sacks, one of the last things he wrote before losing his battle with cancer.

I believe behind every successful anthology is a talented editor. With that in mind, there’s pair of pieces in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I thought for sure I wouldn’t like, but loved the hell out of them. Their very inclusion in this anthology proves Stewart was the right editor for the job. Being male, I had no desire to read Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” but her powerful and well-written expose of the serious health risks facing nail salon workers is top-notch. Likewise, with every Tom, Dick and Harry weighing in online with their varying opinions on autism, I figured Apoorva Mandavilli’s article “The Lost Girls” on the little known and misunderstood challenges faced by autistic females wouldn’t hold my interest. Much to my surprise it would up being one of my favorites in the anthology.

Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 reminded how much I miss reading these anthologies. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you start seeing more of them featured on my blog.


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Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?If there’s one thing I’ve learned all these years blogging about books it’s the more I enjoyed a book, the harder it is for me to write about it. Writing about books I’m not crazy about it is easy. Heck, just post anything on the blog. On the other hand, writing about great book takes forever. Outstanding books call for outstanding reviews and outstanding reviews aren’t easy to write. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about Frans de Waal’s outstanding book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Let’s just say it’s a book so good I feel out of my league reviewing it.

Had it not been for my book club, I might never have heard of, let alone read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Published in April of 2016, De Waal’s book is a detailed look at the world of animal cognition. Looking at a wide array of animals including primates of all varieties but also birds (especially the highly intelligent corvids like crows and ravens), dolphins, elephants and even octopuses De Waal shows without a doubt the gap, cognitively speaking, between these kinds of animals and humans is surprising narrow. As threatening as this might be to our species’ sense of exceptionalism and primacy, the ongoing research shows us this gap is getting narrower all the time. While many scientists and researchers accept the conclusions of these new findings some do not, instead preferring to redefine the definition of such cognitive processes like problem-solving, tool manufacturing and usage, communication and sense of self. De Wall calls this habit of raising the intellectual bar so humans feel less threatened as “moving the goal posts.” (One of my favorite stories in the book is that of the chimps in the London Zoo who were trained to take tea just like any respectable Brits. The problem was the chimps did such good job having a proper tea Londoners felt threatened. As a response the chimps were taught to be sloppy and careless when having tea.)

De Waal’s book is just as much about human cognition as it is about animal cognition, specifically how we humans strive to measure animal intelligence but frequently in the end our assumptions and prejudices prevent us from getting a truer understanding of how animals use their brains. Borrowing from the German biologist Jakob von Uexkull, according to De Waal if you wanna understand how an animal thinks, you gotta understand that animal’s surrounding world, or umwelt. Don’t assign a bunch of intelligence tests that don’t reflect the reality of an animal’s umwelt. As an example, De Waal talks about attempts to measure elephant cognition, specifically tool making. Researchers gave elephants sticks to see if they would use them as tools to grab out of reach treats. Researchers failed to take into account that elephants prefer not to use their trunks in that fashion, since it prevents them from using their trunks as a smell organ. A more accurate test of elephant tool-making was giving them boxes to stack in order to construct a make-shift step-ladder. By doing so the elephant could reach a high-hanging snack and thus show elephants can be tool-making creatures.

Not only is this an outstanding book, it’s by far one of the best book I read in 2016. Please consider Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? highly recommended.


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The Next Pandemic by Ali S. Khan

The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind's Gravest DangersBesides being a sucker for prison memoirs, books about books and Jewish history, I’m also a sucker for books on disease. So it shouldn’t be anyone’s surprise when I heard a book was soon to be released called The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers I keenly kept my ears and eyes open, hoping an available copy would soon magically appear at my public library. Then, as luck would have it, in what seemed like no time thanks to the good people at my public library I was able to secure a copy of Ali S. Khan’s newly published book. After letting it set unread for a week or so I finally dived into it and before I knew it, found myself engrossed in Khan’s globetrotting adventures battling outbreaks of Ebola, anthrax, SARS and other nasty plagues. When it comes to reading about disease the nastier the disease the better. So with that in mind, Khan’s book was a hit with me.

It’s one thing to write a book on emerging diseases. It’s another to recall ones career traveling the world fighting those diseases. But Khan’s book takes it one more steep. Throughout his book Khan shows us not just the science of the outbreaks but the human element impacted by them, and in some cases contributing to them (case in point the Chinese government’s early refusal to acknowledge the SARS outbreak, not to mention America’s slow and inadequate response at the start of the global AIDS pandemic). With the overwhelming number of these new diseases emerging from developing world locations in Africa and East Asia, it’s crucial those in the developed world work closely and on an ongoing basis with health workers on the front lines, not ignoring them until the horrible disease of the month starts making headlines back in the United States and suddenly Americans start feeling threatened by a possible epidemic on their doorstep.

The Next Pandemic makes a great companion book to David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicNathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age and Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond.  With yet another book on nasty diseases under my belt, don’t be surprised if I go in search of another one. Of course when I find my next one, you’ll all read about it on my blog.


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About Time I Read It: The Family That Couldn’t Sleep by D.T. Max

The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical MysteryThree years ago I saw a book listed on Goodreads that completed intrigued me. Published in 2006 and entitled The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery, D.T. Max’s book tells the tragic story of an Italian family cursed with a rare genetic disorder that renders its victims completely sleepless. Labeled Fatal Familial Insomnia or FFI and affecting roughly 1 out of 30 million people, victims of the incredibly rare inherited disorder exhibit no symptoms until the onset of early middle age.  Then, one day out of the blue suffers begin experiencing fever, pinpoint pupils, anxiety, rapid sexual decline (menopause in women, impotence in men) and insomnia. Unable to sleep for months or even several years, victims gradually descend into madness, thrashing about in a weird twilight state neither fully conscious nor awake with death their only release.

When I saw my public library had an available copy of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep I immediately grabbed it. Max’s book made for interesting reading, because it’s not just a book about FFI, but also about prion-causing diseases in general. Discovered by scientists only in the last decade or so, prions are rogue proteins that for reasons little understood, cause bodily proteins to misshape. These nonliving infectious agents are what cause the dreaded animal diseases bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or more commonly mad cow disease) and scrapie in sheep. In humans, it’s the causative agent in kuru, a transmissible and eventually fatal brain disease found among the Fore community on the island of New Guinea. It’s also what causes rare disorders like FFI and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. When compared to our understanding of other disease-causing agent like viruses, bacteria and parasites, our knowledge of prions is considerably limited. But we’re learning more each day. So another cool thing about The Family That Couldn’t Sleep is you can see how our knowledge has increased over the last few years. Considering this book was published a decade ago, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a more recently published book on the subject. It should make for some fascinating reading,

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Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed HistoryOne of the many cool things about a book club is it makes you read good books that for whatever reason, were off your radar. Take for instance Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s book Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History. Even though it was published way back in 2004 I’d never heard of the thing until the leader of our book club suggested we read it. After whipping through it in what felt like no time I sat asking myself why on earth did take me over a decade to encounter this book? It’s pretty darn good.

Both a science book and a history book, each chapter of Napoleon’s Buttons is devoted to a specific molecule that revolutionized the world. The molecules cellulose and sucrose, the main molecules in cotton and sugar respectively, would transform the economies and societies of both the New and Old Worlds. Nitric compounds in the forms of gun powder and other high explosives would be harnessed by the industrialized West to subjugate the globe, blast railway and highway tunnels and crack open the earth for mining purposes. As well as kill millions in two devastating world wars.

With Napoleon’s Buttons I enjoyed the authors’ scientific approach to world history. But I also came away from this book with a host of interesting factoids. For instance, I had no idea Europe was first introduced to caffeine not through coffee or tea but chocolate. Also, I knew the vitamin C deficiency scurvy plagued the European’s early attempts to explore and colonize the world, but I was unaware it was such a widespread and horrific scourge, sometimes killing off over half a ship’s crew. (I also didn’t know once the British finally learned supplementing their seagoing diet with vitamin C-rich foods could ward off scurvy it took over 50 years for them and other Europeans to make the practice widespread.) I also didn’t know the first nitroglycerine manufacturing plants kept blowing up and this lead to the development of the more stable and less dangerous explosive dynamite.

If you follow my lead and end up reading Napoleon’s Buttons I’d encourage you to follow it up with Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements and Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Published in 2010, both books make science not just readable but fascinating and entertaining as well.


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Patience and Fortitude, Red Gold and Pandemic

Once again, I’ve fallen behind in my blogging so I gotta do another catch-up post. I don’t enjoy doing this because it feels like cheating. But hey, what, can I guy do? I got books to write about. So, as they say in the entertainment world, the show must go on.

Of the three books I’ve chosen to briefly spotlight, two are nonfiction and one is fiction. Two are from authors I’m familiar with and one is by an author who’s new to me. As far as subject matter goes, we’re dealing with one of the world’s largest and revered public libraries, life during the German Occupation of France and humanity’s battle against infectious disease.

Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library is another one of those books that was completely off my radar and until I spotted a copy on display at my local public library. Published in 2015, Sherman’s book is an expose of just how close an alliance of real estate developers, NYC power brokers and library big-wigs came to selling off the NYPL’s local branches, gutting the main branch’s iconic reading rooms and relocating the library’s millions of books to an off-site storage facility in New Jersey. The planned overhaul shocked not just NYC’s scholars, intelligentsia and bibliophiles, but many of the world’s famous novelists. The result was a public battle to save the library.

Sherman’s book was an eye opener for me. One, I had no idea this fight to save the NYPL ever happened. Two, I had no idea the NYPL is a nonprofit corporation. All these years I just assumed it was a municipal solely entity owned and operated by NYC.

I was afraid Sherman’s wouldn’t have enough material to devote an entire book to the NYPL controversy and in the end I was relieved he could pull it off. Sometimes these kind of investigative pieces make great lengthy pieces in publications like the New Yorker or the Atlantic but go flat when stretched out and padded to book length. Fortunately, that didn’t feel the case here. Not once while reading Patience and Fortitude was I bored. My favorite parts of Patience and Fortititude were those dealing with the library’s history. (I remember reading in Why the West is the Best the first book checked out of the NYPL was not in English, but in Russian.)

With Alan Furst’s latest novel A Hero of France being released just last week, I figured the time was right to grab one of Furst’s earlier books from the library before they all got snatched up. With only a handful of his Night Soldiers series I haven’t read, I opted for his 1999 offering Red Gold because it’s set mostly in Paris during the German Occupation.  For me anyway, it’s also been tough to find an available copy at the library. Therefore, when given this chance I grabbed Red Gold.

The good news is, even though it’s a sequel of sorts to The World at Night, which to me is the weakest novel of the Night Soldiers series, I enjoyed it a bit more than it’s predecessor. The bad news is just like with The World at Night, I’d have to say it’s one of my least favorite novels of Furst’s But I still like his stuff and I can’t wait to read A Hero of France.

Even though I was slightly disappointed by Sonia Shah’s The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years I could not resist giving her latest book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond a shot when a copy became available at my public library. After all, I’ve never been able to resist a good book on nasty diseases.

Shah’s book looks not just at the horrible pandemics of year’s past, but how also how some of these like cholera have recently come back with a vengeance to once again haunt us. She also fears in this age of worldwide jet travel, massive factory farms of antibiotic fed chickens, increasing deforestation and the rapid rate in which microorganisms mutate, are we due for another deadly pandemic? Perhaps only time will tell.

While I didn’t love it as much as David Quammen Spillover or Viral Storm, I enjoyed it more than Fever. As a result I have no reservations recommending Pandemic to anyone wanting to read a good book on horrible diseases.

There you have it, three books that in their own ways managed to exceed my slightly low expectations.



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