Bookshelf and beyond

Having grown up without a TV, my main source of distraction is still derived from books, radioplays and podcasts. I had initially planned to include reviews of books etc in the blog proper, but have found it difficult to do so… References have crept into individual posts, but reviews are a genre I really haven’t mastered yet. Instead, this page serves as a substitute, where I give short overviews of (mainly) books, which have crossed my path recently and are worth a mention (good or bad ;).

Carl Schoonover: Portraits of the MindIMG_20170416_000239

I first heard about this book a couple of years ago in a NYAS Science & the City podcast, and it has remained one of my favorite science+art books that I take out from time to time to marvel in the beautiful images. The book describes our endevours of understanding the brain in pictures, accompanied by extremely texts, which explain the importance of these images, both from a historic perspective and by delving into the different techniques that people have applied during the ages. Whenever I leaf through, I’m never quite sure if I’m more stunned by the beauty of the brain’s biology or the technological mastery that we have reached to understand how the brain functions.

The Rock
large_pavaljqbrm4jlzegxvezwbxod15Movies usually don’t make it onto the “Bookshelf” page, but I’ll make an exception this time, since recently I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the fact that we seem to be living in a real-life spy novel: there was the murder of the Russian ex-KGB agent who supposedly leaked the Trump dossier, then the sudden death of Russia’s envoy to the UN and -last but not least- the weird assassination of the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader in Malaysia. The latter case has fascinated me in particular, because the supposed murder weapon was a nerve agent, called VX. Now, if you were into movies during the 90s, you may remember this chemical because it played a central role in The Rock, when a group of renegade military men threatened to use it against the people of San Francisco, if the government didn’t agree to their terms. The movie is actually pretty accurate when it comes to the history and mode of action of the poison (plus, it’s a great, typical 90s action movie extravaganza :), but if you’re more into scientific literature I can also recommend a pretty good podcast/writeup of VX in Chemistry World.

Hope Jahren: Lab Girl
Lab Girl is one of those books that divides it’s readers: some people I’ve talked to find it 29630925amazing, others terrifying. I definitely fall into the second camp, and if I ever wanted to persuade someone not to do academic science, I would give them this book. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a real page-turner that’s extraordinarily well written, a joy to read, and draws intriguing parallels between the life of a tree and the life of Hope Jahren, the author. As a colleague of mine (who works in medicine) put it “she even makes plants sounds interesting. I never thought that’d be possible.” However, at the same time Jahren describes an academic world-view that I fight against all the time: the view where you need to push all-nighters to stay abreast of your workload (“I began to set aside one night a week as an all-nighter (Wednesdays) in order to complete the paperwork“) and propagate an insane work ethic as a desirable one. For me, one of the most shocking statements in the book was: “There are two ways to deal with a major setback: one is to pause, take a deep breath, […] distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately resubmerge, […] work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong.  While the first way is a good path towards adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.” As someone who regularly takes people for drinks (the first way) after said people have been put on a path to burnout (the second way) by their PIs I find it terrifying that an established scientist would actively encourage that second path. Personally, I don’t believe this is what you have to do to survive as a women in science. But then again, I’m not there yet – and it is incredibly scary to see the path and struggles of someone like Hope Jahren. Overall, I highly recommend the book – ideally as an example not to follow.

Mark Kurlansky: Cod
cod1-213x300A random find in a second-hand bookshop, Cod turned out to be one of my favorite non-fiction reads of 2014. The title is a bit of a giveaway: the book is entirely about cod. But it has a rather holistic approach, discussing the biology of the fish, the history of codfishing (with detailed descriptions of how it has touched the lives and livelihoods of many nations, from Portuguese to Americans), changes in fishing technologies, economy and ecology. All of this is interspersed with recipes, old and new, from all over the world.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of the book was Kurlansky’s broad perspecitve on things, especially his description of how codfishing became increasingly widespread, and how new fishing methods (trawler fishing) led to bigger catches, despite declining populations – especially in the last century. And how mainstream scientific opinion (he specifically discusses the role of T.H.Huxley) was exploited by politics and economics to justify such overfishing until the mid-20th century, despite resistance by local fishermen. In case you like weird books, I can only recommend this one!

DNA winding for bird watchers
LooseEndsI recently became aware that Syndey Brenners “Loose Ends” and “False Starts” are all freely available on the Current Biology website (HT @jaguilarrod). These are 1-page commentaries and musings that were published between 1994 and 2000. Very Brennerishly they are often vitriolic, sometimes things-were-better-in-the-old-days, occasionally philosophical – and always opinionated and entertaining. They provide glimpses into times past, and make historic events and personalities come alive, sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so. An example of the latter is the title of this section, which refers to some work Francis Crick had done on DNA winding, and had written up in “a simple version […] with the title DNA winding for bird watchers – an allusion to a friend of ours [ie of Crick and Brenner] who was thought to be a suitable audience.” (from Remembrance of Things Past… Reading, Current Biology (1999) 9:R115). If you have time to browse through some of these 5-minute reads – I can only recommend it!

The TED summer reading list…
…is out. It’s a rather eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, recommended by various TED speakers. There’s a warning that not all books are beach reads (very true), but some promising suggestions nevertheless. I’ve read Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (recommended by Bill Gates) and Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris (recommended by Rashida Jones), and I can only second the recommendations. And some of the other books have definitely made their way onto my summer reading list: Want Not by Jonathan Miles (recommended by Elizabeth Gilbert), Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts by James C. Scott (recommended by Clay Shirky) and The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (recommended by Uzoamaka Maduka).

Moises Velasquez-Manoff: An Epidemic of Absence
Published first in 2012, I read An Epidemic of Absence13259821 in Spring 2014, when the concepts of the human microbiome, intentionally infecting yourself with worms and faecal transplants had already become much more mainstream. Nevertheless, I found the book an absolutely fascinating read: essentially it’s a very elaborate telling of how human bodies have co-evolved together with the environment, including the living environment (such as microbiota and pathogens), and the far-reaching consequences (from hay-fever to Crohn’s disease to possibly autism) it may have if this million-year-old “equilibrium” is perturbed. Considering that Velasquez-Manoff spans a really big breadth of diseases and immunology and microbiology, it is surprisingly light reading: the facts are intermingled with character descriptions and personal stories, and he takes the time to include reminders of facts discussed early in the book, when they become relevant again in later chapters. The book also highlights how important it is for researchers to have a broad view of biology in general. Also, as a geneticist, I have attended endless talks about genetic variants that influence autoimmune disorders (eg Crohns) and was fascinated by the statistics, which show that such disorders must be caused primarily by a change of lifestyle and environment. It really made me think: “So why have we been genotyping thousands of patients”? Having said that, at times the book is rather speculative – but then again, Velasquez-Manoff openly admits to this, and frequently emphasizes that more research will be needed. If you have spare time during the summer – I can only recommend you read this.

Francis Crick: What Mad Pursuit
This is a classic, but while all my peers seem to have read The Double Helix by James Watson, this gem is not so well-known. I absolutely love the book, and have found it a good pointer about how to do science. Crick writes not so much about the discovery of the double helix, but more generally about how to think of research, and gives a good 410967historical overview about how scientific ideas were born. My favorite chapter of the book is the second one (“The Gossip Test”; although EVERY chapter is really worth the read), with a key paragraph, which I think still holds true: “By the time most scientists have reached age thirty they are trapped by their own expertise. They have invested so much effort in one particular field that it is often extremely difficult, at that time in their careers, to make radical change.” In the same chapter Crick also describes how he took time to figure out he wanted to study biology – time, which I find, we often don’t have any more, in the context of a traditional research career.

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