Posts Tagged ‘science’

I had been wanting to read this book for a long time and when I finally got around to it, it was a difficult read – not only because my copy was over 600 pages of densely packed font, but also because there is simply so much information and so many names coming at the reader. In tracing the AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s, there are so many facets of the story, and it often switches between locations so concentration is key. For that reason I found I could only read 10 or so pages at a time before I needed to put the book down for a rest.

But for all that it almost felt like homework, it was an illuminating read, and I have kept my copy to read again in future. Randy Shilts was an American journalist and author, who obviously meticulously researched his subject and in the end delivered not just a timeline of an epidemic that ravaged the gay community, but a searing indictment on the Reagan administration who ignored it all for years despite thousands of people dying and despite being told frequently that this disease was tearing through the country. This book horrified me and made me furious at the lack of regard for the AIDS victims.

Shilts describes how in the early 1980s several young gay men started presenting with an unusual skin cancer, which led to much speculation about its cause. While doctors and scientists could see fairly quickly that there was a huge problem in the offing, and worked tirelessly to try to find the cause, they were up against not just an indifferent federal government, but politics at all levels, the gay community themselves, many of whom resented being advised to lessen their sexual activities, and the abhorrent negligence of such places as many blood banks in America, who refused to start testing their blood even after it was proven that AIDS could be caught through infected transfused blood. The national and local press were also largely uninterested in a disease that only affected gay men.

Amongst the scientific challenges and breakthroughs – including one very interesting narrative about the rivalry between American and French scientists – and the grass roots political attempts to get the Reagan administration interested in this disease, there are tales of key people in the epidemic, many of whom succumbed to AIDS themselves. These for me were some of the most interesting parts, as they focussed on the human aspect of living with a disease, or seeing friend after friend pass away. It portrayed the desperation and hopelessness that people felt, and the anger at their government for ignoring them. I often found myself googling certain people and events to find out more about them – which was another reason it took me such a long time to read this book.

So not an easy read, but an extremely worthwhile one and definitely worth the investment of time and concentration.

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Despite the slightly misleading title (more on that later), I enjoyed this book. The author, a senior lecturer in Psychology at Keele University, discusses the benefits and pitfalls of certain ‘bad’ behaviours, including drinking, driving too fast, swearing, time wasting and dying (!) using various tests and experiments conducted by scientists to do so.

As he explains in the introduction, he doesn’t delve too deeply into the science side of things, but explains experiments conducted and their results in layman’s terms (good for a person like me). At the end of each chapter he does provide a list of references and suggestions for further reading.

Stephens is a genial and engaging narrator – a lot of how he writes is in the kind of language you might use having a chat in the pub with friends – which makes for a fun read as well as an informative one. I’m still not convinced that some of the behaviour is beneficial or indeed that all of the behaviour constitutes ‘being bad’ – and certainly there are limits drawn; for example the book acknowledges that excessive drinking is bad for health, while pointing out that drinking in moderation can have health and psychological benefits, but then I wouldn’t say that moderate drinking is ‘bad’ behaviour anyway. As another example, the chapter on swearing states that swearing in certain situations is beneficial, but that there are of course some circumstances when swearing is entirely inappropriate.

Little niggles aside however, overall this book is interesting and provides some food for thought. I’d definitely read more by this author.


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Following last years successful Full Frontal Nerdity show (review here) Steve Mould, Matt Parker and Helen Arney are back with Just For Graphs, a comedy show with science related songs, experiments with fire, and lots of graphs and maths.

These are the kind of people who you wish had been your teachers at school. Science is a lot more interesting when you are actually part of the experiment – such as the experiment showing the conductivity of humans which was demonstrated in this show – or indeed when a tennis ball set on fire is thrown across the stage (it’s not as dangerous as it sounds!)

The show was more maths centred than Full Frontal Nerdity, but even though I am not a maths lover (give me English and Drama over Maths and Science any day), I found it very interesting, and there was certainly a lot to laugh at. There was a great section about Venn diagrams (yes, really!) and Euler diagrams (often mistaken for Venn), and light and bouncy atmosphere kept the whole audience engaged.

Arney, Mould and Parker all interact very well with each other – I can only imagine that they are great friends offstage, and this makes for a friendly dynamic with the audience. Parker in particular is well aware that many people see maths as boring or dry, but if anyone can change people’s minds, he can.

Definitely a fun night out whether or not you have an interest in science. Go catch them on the tour if you can.

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The subtitle of this book is ‘A Neuroscientist and his dog decode the canine brain’.  Gregory Berns – the neuroscientist in question – has done years of MRI work to help understand how the human brain works, but as a dog lover, he wanted to learn how a dog’s brain works.  After first determining that such a thing could even be done, he and his team at Emory University came up with methods of doing MRI scans on a canine brain.  He leads the reader through the initial idea, right through the various difficulties they had to overcome (for example, from being given the go-ahead to do the experiment in the first place, or  training dogs how to lie absolutely still in the MRI scanner.

The two dogs who participate in the experiment are Callie, Berns’ own adopted mix-breed, and McKenzie, the Border Collie owned by a friend of a friend. Berns describes the scientific aspects of the experiment, including how an MRI works and is used, and while the narrative sometimes necessarily becomes quite technical, it was explained simply enough for someone like me – with not the best grasp of scientific concepts – and didn’t lose me or bore me along the way.

Stories about Berns’ family life and his two dogs – as well as Callie, they have a Golden Retriever named Lyra – keep the story bouncing along, and underline the fact that while he is a scientist, he is also a dog lover, with the greatest respect for their happiness and well-being.  For that reason, he was determined that the experiment should not be detrimental to the dogs in any way, and that they should be allowed to not participate if that was what they chose.

It’s a fascinating study, and the telling of it is engaging and, for the most part, upbeat.  I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this particular branch of science, but also for any dog lovers.  Very enjoyable.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is a fascinating book about risk, the probability of risk in given situations, and how humans react to the idea of risk.  It takes as it’s basis three characters: Norm, a man who is average in every sense of the word, and calculates risk according to the statistics; Prudence, who worries incessantly and excessively about everything – for her, the worst case scenario is also the likeliest; and Kelvin, who is arrogant and irresponsible and seems happy to take risks in all aspects of his life.  These characters are placed in different settings, as the book explores the statistical chance of something bad happening, in relation to the public perception of risk.  For example, scary headlines that declare things like ‘Eating such-and-such every day leads to a 20% increase in your likelihood of getting cancer.’  Scary indeed, but the book shows what that 20% risk actually works out at.

The book is written in easy to understand language, and is often amusing.  It acknowledges that it’s all very well saying there’s a one in a million chance of a specific something bad happening, but that’s little comfort to the person that is that one in a million.  Nonetheless, I found it oddly reassuring to be able to understand why certain situations are so scary, yet when looked at objectively, they actually pose little real danger.

It explains how probability is calculated (and discusses the reliability – or not – of the numbers), and is full of interesting anecdotes.  All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable book, on a fascinating subject.  Recommended.

(The Norm Chronicles website can be found here.)

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This story is true, but it is really quite remarkable.  In 1951, a young poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer.  During her treatment, cancerous cells were taken from her body – without the knowledge or consent of Henrietta or any of her family, and these cells became the first to be able to be grown independently.  Even now, more than 60 years later, Henrietta’s cells (known as HeLa) are still being grown, and have been used in numerous – countless even – medical experiments, to help find cures for cancer and AIDS amongst other diseases.  HeLa cells have been launched into space, used in nuclear testing, and…well frankly, all manner of things.  However, her family did not find out about her cells for years, and when they did, it caused them great consternation and confusion.

This quite remarkable book tells the story of the HeLa cells and some of the incredible advancements in medical science in which they have been used, but it also raises the thorny issue of consent and ownership.  (Who DOES own your cells, and is it right that they could be collected and used without your consent?)  Importantly the book also discusses Henrietta as a person, and looks at the effect that the whole matter has had on her descendants, who are still unable to afford their own medical care (in other words, they might not be able to afford the treatments that their own relative’s cells were instrumental in creating).

I found it a fascinating read.  I was concerned that the science parts might be a bit difficult to understand, but Skloot sets it out in a way that makes perfect sense.  She has clearly conducted a huge amount of research into the HeLa cells, and I felt that I learned a lot about them.  For that reason alone it was a worthwhile read, but what I really liked were the parts where Skloot met with members of Henrietta’s family (and in particular, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was literally made ill by all the stress caused when she found out about her mother’s cells).

It really made me think.  I mean, REALLY made me think a lot about the issue of informed consent, and ownership of cells.  On the one hand, if people were classed as the owners of their cells and tissues, they could start demanding money for their use (although after reading this book I don’t actually believe that this would happen a lot).  They also may object to their cells being used in particular kinds of research.  Such objections could slow down scientific and medical progress.  On the other hand, it seems fair that people should have the rights over what happens to parts of their own body.  The book does not attempt to answer the question, but it does look at previous cases, and discusses the opinions of many professionals in the field, who take opposing viewpoints.

I really liked this book a lot, and would definitely recommend it.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Breaking the Mould is a made-for-television film, about the development of penicillin.  When people think of penicillin, they automatically think of Alexander Fleming, and this film is an attempt to tell the true story behind the medical breakthrough and credit those who were very involved, but largely forgotten.  It must be said that Fleming does not come out of this film too well!

Initially I watched it only because Dominic West was in it, and I admit that I did wonder if it would hold my attention, but it was actually very interesting.  West plays Howard Florey, the Australian pharmacologist and pathologist, who in 1938, was interested in Fleming’s earlier discovery of penicillin, which Fleming had abandoned several years earlier, believing that it had little application.  Together with Ernst Chain, a German biochemist, and scientist Norman Heatley, Florey determined to work out how to manufacture large quantities of penicillin.  Despite problems with funding and money flow, the team battled on.  Florey was also again patenting the formula, as he believed that to do so would make the cure too expensive for many people.

After all of their efforts, Fleming – who is portrayed as something of a glory-hunter  – ends up taking most if not all of the credit for what the others have achieved, although Florey and Chain did share the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Fleming, in 1945.

The film tells the story simply, and held my interest throughout.  It showed the human element of the story, as well as the scientific parts, by depicting the early trials which were carried out on hospital patients (not always with successful results).  As the events took place during World War 2, everyone was very aware of the possibilities for treating wounded soldiers, and were equally anxious that the formula for extracting penicillin did not fall into enemy hands.

At an hour and 20 minutes long, this is an informative and interesting film, which made me want to learn more about the men behind the science.

Year of release: 2009

Director: Peter Hoar

Producers: Charlotte Bloxham, Pier Wilkie, John Yorke

Writer: Kate Brooke

Main cast: Dominic West, Oliver Dimsdale, Joe Armstrong, Denis Lawson, John Sessions, Kate Fleetwood, Amanda Douge

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The elusive Doctor Annick Swensen has been living amongst the Lakashi tribe in the tangled waters of the Brazilian Rio Negro River, where the women are able to get pregnant and give birth right until the end of their lives.  Dr Swensen is conducting research regarding their fertility and how whatever enables them to reproduce into their 70s, can be used for a fertility drug in the Western world.  But nobody has heard from Dr Swensen for a long time, nobody can contact her in her remote destination, and when scientist, Doctor Anders Eckman went out there to find her and determine how the research was coming along, all that came back was a curt letter informing them that he had died and been buried there.  His colleague Marina Singh is dispatched there to find out what happened to Anders, and to ascertain the progress of Dr Swensen’s work.  Reluctantly she goes, and what she discovers changes her whole world.

I had previously read Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, and had loved that book, so although the synopsis of State of Wonder did not interest me as much, I wanted to read it….and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There is something about Patchett’s writing – it is so descriptive and evocative, without being ‘flowery’ – and her characters are so utterly believable, that I could  not help but be drawn in.

The book is written in the third person, but from Marina’s point of view, and I liked her a lot.  She was a sympathetic character – far more so than Dr Swensen, who (intentionally, I’m sure) was written as undoubtedly brilliant, but headstrong and blunt to the point of rudeness.

The story is detailed and so much happens, and I was carried along by all of it.  The ending was not what I expected, and not really what I wanted (I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that it is somewhat downbeat), but it worked.

Overall I really enjoyed this, and will be certainly be looking out for more books by Ann Patchett.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is a collection of essays by 42 contributors (because as anyone who has read/watched The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy knows, 42 is the meaning of life), all of whom are atheists.  The contributors are mainly British, and come from a range of different backgrounds and viewpoints – some of the contributors are Ed Byrne, Simon le Bon, Lucy Porter, Richard Herring, Brian Cox and Derren Brown.  And what compilation of essays by atheists would be complete without a contribution by Richard Dawkins?!

As the title suggests, many of the essays are regarding Christmas – just because someone is an atheist doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy Christmas; after all, most of the rituals associated with Christmas are derived from pagan rituals in the first place.  Most of the essays – but not all of them – naturally also deal with the subject of atheism, but thankfully nobody here is trying to convert anyone to atheism, or encourage anyone to give up on their religion.

The contributions are divided into six categories – stories, science, how to, philosophy, arts and events.  I’ll be honest and say that a couple of the science contributions seemed to be a collection of long words put together in an order that I struggled to make sense of, but for the most part this is a collection of enjoyable, thought provoking, and occasionally hilarious stories and anecdotes.  ‘God Trumps’ by Christina Martin, where she describes making her own Top Trumps card set, featuring various religions, made me burst out laughing, as did (on several occasions) ‘A Day In The Life of a Godless Magazine’ by Caspar Melville and Paul Sims.  This particular essay, while fictional, contained snippets of various genuine letters sent to the New Humanist magazine – brilliantly funny.

Lucy Porter provides a list of recommended Christmas viewing/listening/reading, which can be enjoyed by the whole family, Derren Brown talks about how we should be kind to each other all year round rather than just at Christmas, and Simon le Bon describes how he gradually lost his faith – but how losing faith does not mean that he should or can not enjoy Church music or many of the rituals of a religious Christmas.

There is not enough room to mention each and every contribution, but my particular favourites are listed above.  As with all collections, some contributions are better than others, but there are very few entries which I didn’t find some enjoyment in.  I also don’t believe that this book is in any way offensive to people of any religion – as mentioned earlier, it isn’t an attempt to convert anyone – although some people are bound to be offended by it anyway.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, but I can see myself picking it up again in future years, to at least read some of my favourite entries.  Definitely recommended.

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