Note: This is a cross-post of a review I posted at Goodreads.com
I picked this book up as part of a bargain deal at B&N on a bit of a whim. It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and read a book of essays, and I wanted to see what was up with the modern world of science.
Turns out, I’d already heard about a number of topics mentioned in this book, which isn’t that surprising when you consider that even though the essays themselves were written in 2007, many of the events and discoveries they describe occurred earlier, sometimes many years so.
There were a few broad, recurring scientific themes among the essays, a few of which one might expect and others that might be less predictable. Of course, an essay sometimes contained more than one theme. Recurring themes include:
- Biology/Genetics: “Zonkeys Are Pretty Much My Favorite Animal,” “Restoring America’s Big, Wild Animals,” “Our Biotech Future,” “Malaria: Stopping a Global Killer,” “The Selfless Gene,” “Swingers,” “Deadly Contact,” “Darwin’s Surprise”
- Anthropology/Primatology: “The Interpreter,” “Untangling the Mystery of the Inca,” “The Selfless Gene,” “Swingers,” “Science and Islam in Conflict,” “First Churches of the Jesus Cult”
- Epidemiology: “Malaria: Stopping a Global Killer,” “Children Are Diamonds,” “Deadly Contact,” “Darwin’s Surprise,” “Numbers Can Lie”
- Environmentalism: “Restoring America’s Big, Wild Animals,” “Malaria: Stopping a Global Killer,” “Children Are Diamonds,” “A Mighty Wind”
- Physics/Cosmology: “The Universe’s Invisible Hand,” “A Curious Attraction”
- Technology: “Our Biotech Future,” “The Coming Robot Army,” “The First Assassination of the Twenty-First Century,” “Our Silver-Coated Future,” “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” “How to Trick an Online Scammer into Carving a Computer out of Wood,” “The CSI Effect,” “Numbers Can Lie,” “A Mighty Wind”
I don’t have the space (or will…) to comment on each essay individually, so I will provide some brief thoughts only about the three I liked best and the three I liked least.
“The Interpreter”: I found this essay very engaging. It was well written, and the topic – a linguistic study of the language used by the Pirahã (pronounced pa-DEE-han for some inscrutable reason), an ancient tribe embedded deep in the Amazon forest of Brazil – was fascinating to me. Also, the fact that the protagonist of the story, Dan Everett, is a no-holds-barred Irish linguist who bucks academic tradition and lunges for the jugular of the generally accepted God of Linguisticism, Noam Chomsky, simply makes for a good story. I like too that the observations made are open: Everett, and the author, do not attempt to conclude how studying the Pirahã language ultimately will change our understanding of how language developed (and will continue to develop). Furthermore, Everett’s passion and excitement are transparent in the narrative, and one almost feels ready to hop on a plane and join him in the remote jungle where he’s built his life and livelihood.
“First Churches of the Jesus Cult”: Early Christian church history has always fascinated me (though perhaps not quite as much as my friend Dave), and so some of my affinity for this article is perhaps preordained by the title. Once you get past the emotive framework bewailing the current state of Israel in conflict, this essay sheds an interesting light on the claims of the amount and severity of persecution experienced by early Christians. Basically, some evidence shows that Christian churches may have openly existed in locations that would seem to contradict such persecution claims, such as near Roman sentry stations. While there is some dispute about the date of these digs (which is significant because persecutions would necessarily be much less after Constantine declared Christianity the official state religion in the fourth century), it surfaces some interesting questions.
“The Autumn of the Multitaskers”: At first blush, this might appear to be a lament of a luddite, or at least someone who wishes he had the gall to be a luddite. But the author makes some interesting points about the increasingly frenetic pace of technology and the waxing obsession with “multitasking” – which is one of those strange misnomers that everybody knows is inaccurate, but we all still use anyway. One of the more interesting sections of the essay is where the author considers the various metaphors that people have used to describe the human brain throughout the centuries, and hinges on the stunningly introspective question: “Would it be possible someday – through drugs, maybe, or esoteric Buddhism, or some profound, postapocalyptic languor – to stop coming up with ideas of what we are and then laboring to live up to them?”
My least favorites
“Children Are Diamonds”: My dislike of this essay begins with it’s narrative structure and ends with it’s content. It apparently is intended to read like a doctor’s journal, but staccato works best in beat poetry and drum solos and should stay out of the scientific essay. And, yeah, I get it already: There are sick kids in Africa and I should feel bad about it.
“A Bolt from the Blue”: This essay begins with the story of a man who was struck by lightning and suddenly develops an affinity compulsion, and aptitude for playing piano. It then takes a look at similar cases and draws some parallels for people who have exhibited similar artistic tendencies well into adulthood. So far, so good. But then he starts talking like a psychologist, using words that normal people don’t use, like “musicophilia.” Where the epoxy met the catalyst for me was when the author said that there must be a neurological explanation, but he had no idea what it could possibly be. Not only did the article become more mundane and pedantic as it went on, it also became more ironical.
“A Mighty Wind”: I quote the last paragraph: “I rant to myself that this is exactly why governments should step in and support responsible energy development: so that wayward, flawed sybarites such as myself don’t have to make endless, irksome daily decisions when all we really want is a warm bed and a bowl of muesli. With a side of bacon. And a mug of hot imported coffee. Ja.” I don’t know if the author is being facetious or not (which equates to a big FAIL in my book), but it seems unlikely that he is given the treehugger’s wet dream he describes as his vacation to Samsø, the Danish island that touts itself as “carbon negative.” The author praises the use of government mandate and subsidy to achieve this monolithic effort and bitches to a bunch of Irish civil engineers he meets in his travels about why America (and the rest of the world) doesn’t do the same. Of course he ignores some of the obvious problems with his utopia, such as the fact that government subsidies do not make anything “competitive” and they never can – if something is “competitive” then it wouldn’t need government subsidy in the first place. I have more to rant about on this one, but I’ll leave it at what I’ve said already for now.
The other essays
Here’s a broad general classification for the rest of the essays in the book, according to how much I liked them. Again, finding a story enjoyable or not doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the content.
- “Zonkeys Are Pretty Much My Favorite Animal”
- “The Universe’s Invisible Hand”
- “Untangling the Mystery of the Inca”
- “The First Assassination of the Twenty-First Century”
- “Our Silver-Coated Future”
- “A Curious Attraction”
- “Science and Islam in Conflict”
- “Deadly Contact”
- “How to Trick an Online Scammer into Carving a Computer out of Wood”
- “Darwin’s Surprise”
- “The CSI Effect”
- “Numbers Can Lie”
- “Restoring America’s Big, Wild Animals”
- “Our Biotech Future”
- “The Coming Robot Army”
- “Malaria: Stopping a Global Killer”
- “The Selfless Gene”
As the numbers show, I liked more of the stories than I disliked. And there were typically some small tidbits I was able to glean from the ones I didn’t like. Overall, a decent read.