Archive for the 'Book reviews' category

Book Review: Written in Stone

Nov 26 2010 Published by under Book reviews

Brian Switek has been one of my favorite science writers for years.  His blog Laelaps is a consistently informative and enjoyable read.  It exists in a realm that is more in depth and interesting than a typical newspaper piece, but more readable than formal scientific literature.  His ability to read that literature (and he has seemingly read it all) and synthesize it for the rest of us, without dumbing it down, is rare (this he shares with blogger Ed Yong, although with a different style and voice).

A few months ago, I received the proofs of his new book Written in Stone.  I wasn't sure what to expect.  It's subtitle, Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, sounded rather ambitious.  And the book is ambitious.  Switek once again takes an enormous amount of literature (essentially, most of what has been written on evolution and paleontology, with an emphasis on primary sources) and tells us a story.  His story begins in the 16th century with the first writings on fossils, through the discoveries of evolution and deep time, right through to discoveries so recent that I'd imagine his publisher might have lost a bit of sleep.

After an initial section that brilliantly describes the discovery of evolution, natural selection, and paleontology, he gives us chapters detailing the evolution of various familiar species, including our own.  While reading, I discovered a new reading technique: I found myself reading by the computer, pulling up images and looking up some of the many animals Switek discusses, either in passing or in great detail.  For all the readability of Written in Stone, it is at times a bit of work, but that work is well-rewarded (and made easier by access to the internet to help with the avalanche of fossil names).

Switek's book doesn't just answer the question of how evolution occurs, but more important explains how we know what we know.  His choice of megafauna such as whales, horses and elephants was sharp---I love Stephen Jay Gould, but snails?  No snails for Switek.  Sea monsters---factitious and otherwise---emerge from the soil, travel the globe, and set off religious, cultural, and scientific firestorms.  Tetrapods emerge from the seas, evolve into a diverse set of mammals familiar yet alien, and return to the sea to become whales.  And elephants---did you know that elephant molars slowly erupt throughout their lives so that these long-lived animals always have teeth capable of chewing the tough plants that they have to eat by the ton?  I didn't either, but I do now.  The book is full of surprising facts about familiar animals, and how they became what they are.

Most important, though, is Brian's ability to give us a sense of what life really is---a contingent, stochastic, well-pruned bush of relationships.  All of we living things are related, but our relationship is complex and beautiful.  So is Brian's book, and it's well-worth the read.

A pre-publication copy of Written in Stone was given to me at no charge by the publisher.  --PalMD

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Unscientific America: When being right isn't enough

Jul 17 2009 Published by under Book reviews

If you've dipped even one toe into the science blogosphere lately, you've seen discussion of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book, Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future. I have very little interest in the arguments currently raging but not because I don't care. The book makes interesting arguments, some of which I agree with, and some of which I don't. More important, however, is that the authors have a track record of being listened to (cf The Republican War on Science). In a crisis that involves communication (i.e. of scientific knowledge), it would be foolish to ignore people who have proved themselves in that realm.
M & K make a convincing argument that scientific information is not being communicated effectively to "real people". I will stipulate that scientific knowledge is at least as important now as it has ever been, and that there is a gap in understanding between scientists and the lay public. For their thesis to have any utility, this must be true. Whether this gap is unique to our culture and our time is less clear to me, but the basic problem remains.
I agree that there is a, "need for scientists to communicate their knowledge in ways that non-scientists can relate to and understand." I also agree to an extent that, "scientists [often] fail to connect with top decision makers" (which intersects with, but is different from, the lay public). Where they lose me, but only a little, is with the assertion that we must, "break down the walls that have for too long separated the "experts" from everybody else." For better or for worse, we need experts, and some barriers are insurmountable. Not everyone (including me) can understand how to design a microprocessor. I must in some way trust those that do. Those that investigate and design our world must be trustworthy in the eyes of the rest of us, and to the extent that this is the "wall" they are writing about, I'm with them.
In medicine, this idea of "expert-ness" is critical. It is a constant frustration for some lay folks and others that medicine requires special knowledge, and quacks capitalize on this by sounding "expert-y". But doctors--and scientists--have special knowledge, special skills, and special creativity not possessed by all the rest of us, and to pretend that it isn't so is dangerous. Still, we could put some portholes in that wall, dig some tunnels, create effective communication. But I'll always have to trust the astronomers if they tell me object "x" is made of neutrons or whatnot, because I'll never have the skills to see for myself.

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