The pursuit of evidence is the most pressing moral imperative of our time

Galileos Middle Finger book coverGalileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science
by Alice Dreger

This is a troubling book in many ways. It made me punch the air triumphantly and it made me angry. I was impressed by Dreger and I was annoyed by her. I think it’s an important part of the story of how science and activism interact, but it’s not the whole story.

Dreger is a science historian who got involved in intersex activism after studying the history of how intersex conditions were treated medically. She was able to occupy a middle ground between intersex people and medics, and use that position to investigate the current situation (in the 1990s and 2000s) and campaign for evidence-based change to treatment.

“Science and social justice require each other to be healthy, and both are critically important to human freedom. Without a just system, you cannot be free to do science, including science designed to better understand human identity; without science, and especially scientific understandings of human behaviours, you cannot know how to create a sustainably just system…The pursuit of evidence is probably the most pressing moral imperative of our time [but] we’ve built up a system in which scientists and social justice advocates are fighting in ways that poison the soil on which both depend.”

Continue reading “The pursuit of evidence is the most pressing moral imperative of our time”

Royal Society Winton Prize shortlist announced

Today, the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books shortlist was announced. Congratulations to all the 2015 contenders:

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam

Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex Bellos

Smashing Physics: Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment by Jon Butterworth

Life’s Greatest Secret: the Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code by Matthew Cobb

Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe Mcfadden and Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Adventures in the Anthropocene: a Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made by Gaia Vince

After the great success of my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge, I have completely dropped the ball and read zero popular science this year, so I have read none of the above titles. Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm has read and recommended The Man Who Couldn’t Stop. I don’t think any of the others have been covered by bloggers I follow, but I may be being rubbish at searching so please do leave a link in the comments if I missed your review.

Continue reading “Royal Society Winton Prize shortlist announced”

Reality is always worth more than wishes

backroom boysBackroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin
by Francis Spufford

This was my final read for my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge. It’s been recommended to me by multiple people, including Tim, so I thought I would save this for last. It’s about British engineering projects, large and small, of the 20th century.

This is a sort of love letter to British engineering, but a deprecating one with notes of doubt. Spufford looks at projects from the Black Arrow space rocket to the computer game Elite to the Human Genome Project. Sometimes, like that last example, the Brits formed part of an international effort, but it is very much the Brits that Spufford is writing about.

Spufford is playing up the idea of the unsung hero, the small project dwarfed by international (especially US) comparison, which isn’t actually always as true as he implies (but obviously in the case of, say, the space programme, it really is). A book about technology, especially one including ongoing projects, does risk feeling dated quickly, and in the 11 years since this was first published, things have changed. In fact, the paperback edition includes an author’s note at the end with updates that had already happened in the first year since publication.

“It was beginning to dawn on the engineers that they were watching a virtually perfect performance…Wishes were turning into facts faster than seemed wholly lucky…The party was long and loud, because the attempt to orbit Prospero had been the last thing between the rocketmen and the end of the programme, and this, the celebration, was the last of the last. When the sun came up the next morning over the desert, the hangover would encompass the whole of British rocketry.”

This is an interesting, entertaining book that brings to life largely forgotten (or possibly never known to begin with) stories. Spufford doesn’t just explain the science and technology well, he bubbles with enthusiasm, pouring praise on the men and women (but as he admits himself, mostly men) who made these projects happen. I was actually a little saddened when later chapters concentrated more on the policy and politics of making projects happen, not because that’s not a valid part of the story, but because it meant there was less of that almost childlike enthusiasm and adulation.

There’s a definite lean towards Cambridge-based projects. Spufford lives in Cambridge and, while I would not say any of his choices of subjects to cover are undeserving, it does seem a little more than coincidental that half of them are or were in Cambridge, and makes me wonder what alternative options he might have covered with a net cast more widely. Also, I was not always convinced by his sweeping statements, though I’m pretty sure he’s right on the details.

For instance, Spufford writes about Elite as if it’s the one and only example of a decent British computer game, as if this effort by two Cambridge students was the country’s one stab at a games industry and, while successful, was a one-off. This is so very far from true. In the major success league, by 2003 there had been four Grand Theft Auto games (DMA Design/Rockstar North), five Tomb Raider games (Core Design), Goldeneye 007 (Rare), Lemmings (DMA Design), Burnout (Criterion Games), Worms (Team17) and dozens more that I don’t know. So while Elite was clearly a major step forward, hugely influential on gaming as a whole and an interesting human story to boot, it is by no means a lone wolf in British engineering history. That said, it’s a particularly well written chapter, plus it was a lot of fun reading it while sat next to Tim playing the recent sequel Elite: Dangerous, and hearing from him what a big deal the original Elite was.

“That’s how making goes. It would be dispiriting for the maker if it weren’t that reality is always worth more than wishes. A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain, is still therefore deeply pleasurable to the maker.”

Overall, Spufford is very readable and I’m glad that we already have one of his other books on our shelves.

First published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Source: Borrowed from Tim

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge

We are unconsciously influenced in the most amazing ways


Sensation: the New Science of Physical Intelligence
by Thalma Lobel

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I will try to sort them out during this review, but apologies if it just comes off as a confused mess of thoughts!

Lobel is a psychologist who is interested in how our senses affect the way we think and links that to the way that we think metaphorically – a new area of psychology called “embodied cognition”. Sounds a bit complicated? Here are some examples to show how straightforward an idea it is: holding something warm makes us friendlier; the colour red makes us anxious; the smell of fish makes us feel suspicion. Yes, really.

The examples explored in the book vary quite a lot. Some of them seemed obvious to me (we equate weight and value, for instance), while others were surprising (touching something cold or hard makes us act more sternly). For me, Lobel certainly achieved her stated goal, which is to make readers question whether their senses are affecting their judgement. Am I agreeing to take on extra work because I’m holding a warm cup of tea? Am I choosing not to give money to that homeless person because they’re wearing black? Is that person genuinely good at their job or is it just that they’re tall?

“We are constantly exposed to environmental stimuli and cues…We experience much of our world quite consciously through our senses. But without noticing it, we are also unconsciously influenced in the most amazing ways by the physical experiences our senses convey. “

Which is all very interesting, and Lobel quotes a lot of studies rather than just making assertions. The training instilled in me by Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog meant I couldn’t help noticing that they’re mostly very small studies, but then it is a fairly new area of research and Lobel is careful to say when further studies back up the findings or when they are still needed.

Often, I found that a subject was obvious from one direction – that we think heavy things have more gravitas than light things, for example – but what was really interesting was when this was studied from the opposite direction. We estimate weights as heavier when they are somehow linked to a more serious subject (for instance a book deemed “important” compared with one that is supposedly random). We estimate heights as taller when the person is in a position of power. We perceive people as being nicer if they have a sweet tooth.

Despite the endless examples, Lobel has a very readable style. She is clearly excited by the science and manages to pass on her enthusiasm. She includes examples from books, films and TV as well as anecdotes from her own life to illustrate aspects of embodied cognition, which didn’t always hit the mark for me, but added personality and, coupled with her own involvement in this area of research, gave the book a personal touch.

“I had always thought of my grandfather as tall…In reality…he was on the shorter side of average. The pictures in my hands showed [this] but even then I checked with my mother to verify what my eyes were seeing. Even after learning that the grandfather I had always thought of as being tall was actually short, I still see him in my memory as towering over the rest of the family.”

My one problem with the book is possibly a problem I have with psychology in general – I don’t just want to know how behaviour is affected by sensory input, I want to why and this is only occasionally touched on. Lobel gets a bit defensive in an early chapter about psychology being considered a “soft science” but I can’t help observing that, compared with the other popular-science books I’ve read, this one was lacking that dogged search for the underlying truth, and I missed that.

I also want to know if these findings are universal or if they’re language-based. My guess would be that the link between red and danger and sex is universal, but the link between the smell of fish and feeling suspicion isn’t. But I want someone to tell me whether I’m right and why! Some of my questions were at least broached in the final chapter, but for the most part the answer was that more studies are needed, which I suppose is fair, but unsatisfactory.

It’s honestly a fascinating book and it has made me more aware of my sensory surroundings and how they might affect me.

Published 2014 by Icon Books.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.


WIN a copy of Sensation by Thalma Lobel

This competition is now closed.


Icon Books have kindly offered me three copies of fascinating new book Sensation by Thalma Lobel to give away to you, my lovely readers. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

With Sensation, the world’s leading expert on the new science of physical intelligence, Thalma Lobel, brings us the first ever popular psychology book on “embodied cognition”: how the body profoundly affects our thoughts, emotions and decisions about everything from the people we like to the ways we work.

By sharing fascinating new findings – like how clean smells promote moral behaviour and sports teams in black jerseys are given more penalties than teams in other colours – Thalma Lobel reveals how shockingly impressionable we are to sensory input from the world around us.

Sensation is the first book to show how vulnerable we are to the unconscious influence of our senses over our minds.


To WIN a copy of this book, just leave a comment before the end of Wednesday 1 October, and then I will pick out three random winners.

If you want to find out what I thought of Sensation, keep an eye on the blog for my review, coming shortly.

A Who’s Who of pesticides is of concern to us all

Silent SpringSilent Spring
by Rachel Carson

This is a book that changed the world and brought hideous criticism on its author, and I’m loath to add to or ratify any of that criticism but this book took me six weeks to read and honestly it often felt like a slog. And yet I still think Carson was a good writer, or capable of good writing.

For those who don’t know the book, this now-legendary tract is a polemic against the widespread of use of pesticides such as DDT, on the grounds that they are dangerous poisons that kill far more than the target insects or fungi. Carson gathered together evidence that the supposedly safe pesticides that were widely sprayed from aeroplanes onto thousands of acres of land were killing fish, birds, pets, livestock, even people. A lot of this evidence came from scientific journals, so it’s not as though the problem was unheard of before she got interested, but she brought it to a wider audience and as a direct result, President Kennedy ordered an investigation into pesticide misuse.

“A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals – eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

With my long history of interest in environmental issues, I am curious why this book didn’t engage me. I think there are several reasons, but they should be cast against the plain fact that this book was a bestseller and has remained in print for decades – obviously others had a better experience than me!

To begin with, I found the tone very uneven. The book starts with a long emotive intro completely devoid of facts, then launches into super technical explanations. This pattern continues, though the balance overall tends to be of more technical language interspersed with poetic sections. The references are all hidden at the back of the book so it’s near impossible to tell what’s scientific fact and what’s speculation in some places – but then elsewhere it’s perfectly clear so obviously Carson was capable of achieving that balance.

“In Greek mythology the sorceress Medea, enraged at being supplanted by a rival for the affections of her husband Jason, presented the new bride with a robe possessing magic properties. The wearer of the robe immediately suffered a violent death. This death-by-indirection now finds its counterpart in what are known as ‘systemic insecticides’. These are chemicals with extraordinary properties which are used to convert plants or animals into a sort of Medea’s robe by making them actually poisonous.”

Another issue I had was that, although we still face many similar problems, the specifics are different. I struggled with the current-day relevance of the endless facts and found myself wishing for an up-to-date equivalent. Of course, the difference is that these days that information is available to me if I go looking for it (in fact a quick scan of the petitions I’ve signed on is a good start).

On the other hand, this book also had the presumably desired effect of making me furious at the ignorance and deliberate misinformation that led to Carson writing this book – partly because I know that governments continue to side with big business against scientific advice, even when the advice is a cautious “let us do a couple of tests”.

“Soil is in part a creation of life, born of a marvellous interaction of life and non-life long aeons ago. The parent materials were gathered together as volcanoes poured them out in fiery streams, as waters running over the bare rocks of the continents wore away even the hardest granite, and as the chisels of frost and ice split and shattered the rocks. Then living things began to work their creative magic and little by little these inert materials become soil.”

Overall, I’m glad I’ve read it but can’t say it holds a candle to more recent examples of popular science – the science itself is explained clearly but isn’t made interesting and isn’t presented in a logical order (to my mind) and varied wildly in how engaging it was. Clearly this was an early example of a genre that has since been refined and practised much more.

Sections of this book were first published as a series of articles in the New Yorker.
First published 1962 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

The women writing pop science

Just a quick note to say that today you can read my thoughts about women writing popular science over at For Books’ Sake. Inspired by my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge and the feminist focus of For Books’ Sake, I picked out my top five pop-sci books by women. Please do go take a look and leave a comment with your own favourites, or your thoughts on the ones I picked.

I accepted loneliness as a way of life

In the Shadow of Man

In the Shadow of Man
by Jane Goodall

While famous in the world of science, Goodall is perhaps lesser known to the rest of the world than her American counterpart Dian Fossey thanks to Hollywood and Sigourney Weaver, but Goodall is apparently the better writer. I certainly enjoyed this example of her writing, with a few reservations.

This is the second of Goodall’s 26 books to date, most of which are about the chimpanzee study that occupied her for more than 40 years. As such, it’s very much the beginning of her story and I’m aware, both from the 1988 foreword added to this book and further details online that much has changed since, both in Goodall’s life and in our knowledge of chimpanzees, and therefore my review is at a disadvantage by being based only on the book I have just read.

Goodall knew as a young woman that she wanted to study animals, so she worked hard as a waitress to raise the money when an opportunity arose for her to visit Kenya. In Africa she got herself a job so that she could stay until she had wrangled herself an invite to meet the great naturalist Louis Leakey. He saw her passion and gave her the job of studying chimpanzees at Gombe Stream in Tanzania. He told her from the start it was a solitary and long-term project – a previous study of two months had been woefully inadequate – and Goodall gamely rose to the challenge.

“I accepted loneliness as a way of life…I became immensely aware of trees; just to feel the roughness of a gnarled trunk or the cold smoothness of a young bark with my hand filled me with a strange knowledge of the roots under the ground and the pulsing sap within…I loved to sit in a forest when it was raining, and to hear the pattering of the drops on the leaves and feel utterly enclosed in a dim twilight world of greens and browns and dampness.”

This is a memoir as well as a scientific book, but most of all it is the story of the specific group of chimps that Goodall got to know over many years (this book covers the first decade). You can watch her early progress as a scientist, as the first part of the book describes her gradually learning to do the job through trial and error, while the latter half is effectively her actual study results. These chapters are split fairly scientifically into subjects such as hierarchy, feeding, parenthood and death, but Goodall always uses specific examples to illustrate her general observations. She is a storyteller and she has a fascinating, sometimes moving story to tell. I even shed tears at one point.

The book is a little dated, in multiple ways. Goodall’s tone is often preachy when it comes to human behaviour, sometimes to a cringeworthy degree. Though tied into this are the clear beginnings of her activism in animal protection, which obviously I am wholeheartedly behind. The fact that she so often compares human behaviour with that of the chimps feels old-fashioned and unnecessary (but admittedly, that is the entire basis of the book’s title). But most of all the scientific study itself feels dated. Then again, even within the first 10 years Goodall learned from her early mistakes – for instance, their initially high level of artificial feeding of the chimps was heavily cut back over time.

“Would Mike have become the top-ranking male if my kerosene cans and I had not invaded the Gombe Stream? We shall never know, but I suspect he would have in the end. Mike has a strong ‘desire’ for dominance, a characteristic very marked in some individuals and almost entirely lacking in others.”

I know that some people have accused Goodall of anthropomorphism because she named the chimps (and some of the local baboon population) that she studied, but I disagree with that criticism. Naming an animal is not the same as describing it in human terms, and the latter is something that Goodall never does; in fact, she is careful to specify that is not what she means when she describes something that could be construed as close to a human response. She was the first to observe many key aspects of chimp behaviour, including tool-making and meat-eating. I really felt I learned a lot about chimpanzees from this book and would be interested to find out how much more we know now, after more than 50 years of close study, in Tanzania and, later, elsewhere. (The Gombe Stream base started taking on students quite early on in Goodall’s career and is still going now.)

“I cannot conceive of chimpanzees developing emotions, one for the other, comparable in any way to the tenderness, the protectiveness, tolerance and spiritual exhilaration that are the hallmarks of human love in its deepest sense. Chimpanzees usually show a lack of consideration…which in some ways may represent the deepest gulf between them and us.”

For all its 1970s moralising, this book is never prudish about the facts of life. Goodall describes simply and factually everything about the chimps, including their sex lives, their toilet habits and how they deal with death. She maintains the same matter-of-fact tone about her own life, which is slightly disconcerting when she is telling the story of her romance with and marriage to Hugo van Lawick, a National Geographic photographer who was selected to go to Gombe Stream by Louis Leakey, who had a hunch that Hugo and Jane would hit it off. Hugo managed to get his assignment in Tanzania extended and started helping out with the chimp study so that soon he and Jane were working closely together, which they continued to do throughout their marriage. There are many of Hugo’s photos in the book, a nice touch that helps bring the story to life.

I think now I really should read books by Louis Leakey’s other famous protégées, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, though I might need to take a break in-between so I don’t overload on great apes!

Published 1971 by Houghton Mifflin/Collins.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

Scratch a geologist and, under their skin, you’ll find a romantic

Snowball Earth

Snowball Earth: the Story of the Great Global Catastrophe That Spawned Life as we Know it
by Gabrielle Walker

I picked up this book because Walker came highly recommended, not because of the subject matter. In fact, the one aspect of the book I had been interested in (the biology angle) was squeezed largely into one chapter. It turns out that this is a book about geology, which I have very little knowledge of or interest in, yet I found it hugely readable and genuinely enjoyable.

I will attempt to explain the premise briefly. The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. The first lifeforms – single-celled slime, often called the “primordial ooze” – emerged about 3.7 billion years ago. The first multi-cellular creatures – the ancestors that led to complex beings such as us humans – didn’t show up until 600 million years ago. Scientists had long been puzzled as why it took so long for evolution to really get started and whether there had been some kind of trigger. In the late 20th century geologists finally found what looks like the answer – the Snowball Earth.

“Stretch your arms out wide to encompass all the time on Earth. Let’s say that time runs from left to right, so Earth was born at the tip of the middle finger on your left hand. Slime arose just before your left elbow and ruled for the remaining length of your left arm, across to the right, past your right shoulder, your right elbow, on down your forearm, and eventually ceded somewhere around your right wrist. For sheer Earth-gripping longevity nothing else comes close. The dinosaurs reigned for barely a finger’s length. And a judicious swipe of a nail file on the middle finger of your right hand would wipe out the whole of human history.”

But what is the Snowball Earth? The idea is that sometime around 650 million years ago the Earth froze completely over, even at the equator, for a few million years. There’s a lot of geological evidence pointing to this having happened, possibly multiple times in quick (geologically speaking) succession, and it is the theory that best answers a lot of questions raised by odd rock formations and other geological anomalies. However, it’s also a controversial idea that has taken a lot of time and accumulated evidence to reach the state of semi-approval it currently has.

It really is to Walker’s credit that she has made a book about looking at rocks so very appealing to me. I think this is partly because she puts the emphasis firmly on the people and personalities involved. This book is as much about Paul Hoffman, a professor of geology at Harvard, as it is about anything else. Walker depicts him as quite the character, difficult and brilliant, with long-standing rivalries and a long string of we-used-to-be-friends, but her picture is still a warm one.

“There’s something about holding a geological hammer that makes you want to hit rocks. Weigh one in your hand, and you’ll find yourself itching to whack something with it. Still, to carve a hand sample into just the right shape for your pocket requires considerable skill. Paul is very, very good at it. If his geology career went awry, he could make a living as an ornamental rock chipper.”

The way Walker describes the piecing together of the Snowball Earth theory is very enlightening as regards the scientific process, elucidating where ideas come from and how they develop, sometimes painfully slowly. She lets the story unfold as it really did – in fits and starts – with only the occasional backpedal to clarify. This can be frustrating at times when suddenly a new character comes into play and has to be introduced but it also cannily introduces suspense: How is this new person connected to everything else? And how will they affect Paul’s story?

“Relationships among geologists are intense. By its nature, geology involves travelling with your colleagues to remote places…living on top of one another and away from other people for weeks on end…Their personalities become magnified. They bond or they break.”

Walker’s explanations of the actual science are largely excellent, though she does occasionally simplify a little too far – who doesn’t know at the basic level what DNA is? But I came away from this book really feeling that I understood it all and curious about what further developments have been made in this area since the book was published 11 years ago.

There are some beautiful descriptions both of the remote locations the geologists travel to to find the right rock formations and of geology itself. Walker paints a romantic view of geology, showing love for the subject and affection for all the people involved in the tale. Perhaps it’s this warmth that drew me in. I’m certainly intrigued to read more of her works and see if she can make other unlikely subjects come alive for me in the same way.

“Scratch a geologist and, under their skin, almost invariably, you’ll find a romantic. They will often be gruff about the landscape they work in. They are usually matter of fact about the rocks and how they interconnect. But try asking why they’ve chosen to spend their lives working on this particular place or on that particular terrain, and that’s when the stories start to slip out.”

Published 2003 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge.