Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “science”

Jen K’s #CBRIV Review #37: The Greatest Show on Earth

A good book for anyone that needs a refresher on the science and facts behind evolution. I’m not sure it would convince anyone that didn’t want to be convinced but at least I’ll be able to defend my position even more accurately.

Katie’s #CBR4 Review #46: Smart World by Richard Ogle

Title: Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas
Author: Richard Ogle
Source: library
Fun Fact: Barbie was based on a doll of the main character in a smutty german cartoon which sold mainly in smoke shops.
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Review Summary: Very abstract, academic approach to the topic of creativity with a  few thought provoking insights but little practical advice.

Have you ever wished you were more creative? I certainly have and not just because it would be awesome if I could draw. As a grad student, one of the most challenging aspects of research is being able to come up with creative new ways to solve problem. As in many fields, that makes creativity not just a hobby, but a career promoting skill. This book is a synthesis of the latest research related to creativity, particularly major breakthroughs and works of artistic genius.

Read more at Doing Dewey.

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #50: This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

This Will Make You Smarter (cover)Editor John Brockman posed the question “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Leading scientists, psychologists, writers and general advanced “thinkers” responded with the short answers that make up This Will Make You Smarter, and the result is indeed thought-provoking, but not always interesting.

However, the most interesting portion, to me, is that this was published before the self-plagiarizing/Bob Dylan quote fabrication scandal of Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer’s contribution to this book, “Control Your Spotlight,” has to do with a study conducted with small children. The children were in a room with a bowl of marshmallows and told that if they could wait a short period of time alone, they could have more than one to eat. The study looked at impulse control, mainly, and the children who were better able to resist taking a marshmallow early were the ones who put their attention elsewhere. Some kids sang songs, others covered their eyes, etc. But what I find rather amusing is this bit from Lehrer:

Willpower is really about properly diverting the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It’s about realizing that if we’re thinking about the marshmallow, we’re going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.

So, am I to understand that he gambled on the working memory of Bob Dylan fans, and hoped that they were looking at other things when he made up those quotes? That’s a pretty big gamble, that spotlight “control.” He didn’t have the smarts suggested in David G. Myers’ contributing essay, “Self-Serving Bias:”

Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues and likewise those of others.

In other words, work with what you’ve got, and work it well. Don’t be a self-serving jerk who tries to make his book better with fake quotes. Also, never underestimate a music super-fan’s skills.

(My full review appears at Glorified Love Letters.)

Katie’s #CBR4 Review #39: Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni

Title: Mirroring People
Author: Marco Iacoboni
Source: library
Fun Fact: People who think about rabid soccer fans before general knowledge tests do worse than a control group, while people who think about professors before the test do better than the controls.
Rating: ★★★★★
Review Summary: Wow – this is some incredibly interesting and well explained research. I’d highly recommend this to pretty much anyone.

Mirror neurons are the part of our brain which allow is to interpret other’s emotions, predict their intentions when they begin an action, and probably enable our ability to communicate using language. In Mirroring People, Marco Iacoboni explains clearly and intelligently the cutting edge research on this fascinating part of our brain – research with which he was intimately involved. The basic premise of this work is that we use the same neurons to preform an action and when we watch other people perform an action. This lets us put ourselves in their shoes to better understand what they’re doing and why.

Read more at Doing Dewey.

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #47 Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

After reading a few of Mary Roach’s books, I figured Elephants on Acid would be a similarly quirky look at the scientific community.  Alex Boese is no Mary Roach.  While Roach can balance her irreverent wit against sometimes sad subject material, Boese handles tragedy with the deftness of Dane Cook’s badly constructed and horrendously ill timed Aurora shooting “joke”.

The first chapter in Elephants on Acid is the most gruesome.  This introduction to Boese’s sense of humor may leave you nauseous.  Unfortunately, he can’t be blamed with the subject matter, so with it’s presentation.  This chapter deals with Frankenstein like experiments committed in the name of science, none for the feint of heart.  Oh, and there are pictures.  I don’t want to advocate burying heads into the sand and ignoring awful and terrible things in the world, but when I sit down to read a book and weird science, I general don’t expect to see a decapitated dog’s head within a few pages of opening the book.

As for the titular Elephants on Acid, the first elephant died.  While Boese capers around yelling, “Ha Ha!  Those stoopid scientists killed an elephant,  What a trip.  GET IT?!?!?!”, I’m left feeling like the Debbie Downer because all I can focus on is the fact that an endangered species just died on the whim of an idiot.  There’s schadenfreude and then there’s being an asshole.

I wouldn’t be nearly as critical of the book if Boese had made any type of critical analysis of experiments he reported; for him, his effort was extended on thinking up crafty one-liners that would even make Horatio Caine shake his head in disgust.  Furthermore, having read of some of these experiments in college, specifically the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, I also suspect Boese to be guilty of lackadaisical research.  Several of the details mentioned  by Boese in regards to the Prison Experiment are false, if the documentary (that I’ve probably seen eight times) is any indication.  He also focused too heavily on the shock and awe factor of these experiments and not the impact they had on science and the world at large.  Did you know that the “prisoner” that had to be released early from the experiment was so deeply effected by it that he went on to work with real prisoners with mental health issues?  Or that Zimbardo then went on to do groundbreaking work on shyness, the exact opposite of authority?  Basically, if you want to read something for the sheer point and laugh value, stick to articles.  They are better researched and better written.

Bothari’s #CBR4 Review #28: Singers of Time by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson

I think Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson are the science fiction version of Stan and Jan Berenstain. They were trying to teach me lessons while I thought I was reading a story about aliens.

The story starts many generations in the future. Alien beings (nicknamed Turtles by humans) have used their indispensable technology to trade their way into human society, gradually becoming overseers of mankind. Humans are still technically free, but they all work for Turtles, depend on Turtle goods, etc. Turtles have taken charge, and one of their mandates outlawed science. It’s against their religion, which says that all things come from the Mother Turtle, and therefore none of this silly science stuff is allowed.

We are introduced to Captain Krake, a human who has the rare honor of piloting a Turtle spaceship; Sork and Kiri, twin brothers who work for the Turtles; Sue-Ling, a surgeon who uses Turtle brain-implant technology to operate; and Moon, a farm girl who runs away with her pet/friend Thrayle (a Taur – a race of cowlike but semi-intelligent creatures the Turtles introduced). When something terrible happens to the Turtles’ home planet, everyone must come together to figure out what happened, and what to do next.

Part of that figuring out process includes listening to old discs of school lectures as kind of a crash course in science. Did the planet fall in a black hole? A wormhole? What are the possibilities? The Turtles have to depend on human theories to solve the mystery. The Berenstain Bears part comes in between each chapter, where you’ll find a few pages representing one of these school lectures. Planck’s constant, quantum physics, quantum mechanics, the big bang theory, Einstein, and a whole bunch of other stuff I’d never heard of. The lectures aren’t super-high level, so they were easy enough to follow even for this science dummy, and it helps the reader understand the panic and frustration the characters on the ship are feeling.

It’s a great adventure story, though the characters sometimes come across as a little thin. Sork is angry, Moon is worried, Kiri is calm, etc. Nobody gets too much of a background or character motivation or anything. But their journey is interesting, and I felt like I was learning stuff along with the characters.

faintingviolet’s #CBR4 review #27: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I have a perverse sense of what constitutes good beach reading. I tend to stay away from the quick easy reads while sitting under my umbrella. The past two vacations I have spent on the beach I have opted for The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. This review is about Ms. Skloot’s book inspired by HeLa cells and the woman who they came from.


Rebecca Skloot became familiar with HeLa cells, the first immortal cells ever reproduced in a lab during her college days. Finding herself mesmerized Skloot set out to discover the person behind cells. However, she discovers more than she anticipated over the course of several years of research. She discovered the story of Henrietta Lacks, born in the rural south to poor tobacco farmers and the family she created for herself in Turners Station, Maryland.


Skloot attacks the layers of the story by flipping back and forth through time and topics. This non-linear story could at times be confusing if not for Skloot’s perseverance in editing and the use of a timeline at the beginning of each chapter. This book is at once the story of Henrietta’s life, the science and discoveries enabled by the discovery of HeLa cells, and the changes in patient rights over the past 60 years.


This is a heavy, engaging read. Well worth your time.

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #48: Stiff by Mary Roach

I love Mary Roach and this book was fascinating, but I think it might have been just a little bit too morbid for me.

As I noted in my review of Bonk, Mary Roach is a curious lady. She seems to think it her life’s mission* to pick areas of interest and then dive into them in ways that most people either haven’t thought of, or have thought of but were too embarrassed to ask about. Stiff was her first book (before that she was a freelance writer, mostly doing humorous yet educational pieces for Reader’s Digest, Vogue, GQ, Discover, and The New York Times Magazine), but somehow I ended up reading the Mary Roach body of work backwards, and this is actually the last one I’ve read, even though it was first published. In case you care (you don’t), I like the ones about sex and space the best, but that’s probably because I like reading about sex and space. One of the great things about Roach’s writing is that it’s remarkably consistent, and her same curious and irreverent (but always respectful) manner can be applied to all manner of topics — you always know what you’ll be getting into when you pick up one of her books. And who the heck knows what she’s going to write about next.

*Either that, or she’s making a shit ton of money off of doing that exact thing over and over, so why not just keeping do it? Mary Roach’s publishers say, “More please!”

In Stiff, Roach examines the many things that happen to our bodies after we die, but her main avenue of inquiry is what happens to bodies people have “donated to science.” As you’ll find out if you read the book (or the next couple of sentences that I’m about to type), donating your body “to science” could mean any number of things. She writes about surgeons practicing techniques on severed heads, cadavers being preserved for eternity as art exhibits*, bodies being used as crash-test dummies to make cars safer for those of us who are still living, and the use of cadavers in weapons and ballistics research. There’s even a whole chapter about gravedigging, which was the main way that doctors/researchers obtained human remains to study way back in the day. One of the things Roach is careful to note is that when you donate your body to science, you have no choice over where you will end up. I might consider donating my body to science if I could guarantee I’d end up as a skeleton in a classroom, or as an exhibit at Bodyworlds, but there’s no way I’m getting my head chopped off so plastic surgeons can mess around with my face muscles. NO THANK YOU.

Even though it was really interesting, for most of the book I found myself slightly sick to my stomach, and kind of appalled at what physically happens to us after we die. The last chapter made me feel slightly better — Roach goes into detail about a Swedish (or was she Belgian? I can’t remember) scientist who is pioneering composting as a means of burial. If this is a thing ever I want it to happen to me (not as creepy as it sounds — they don’t just bury you and let you naturally turn into fertilizer — there’s this thing they do to halt the natural decaying process and then you just kind of gradually merge with the dirt without so much as making one little stink). I used to joke that I wanted to be encased in honey in a glass tomb and then lowered to the bottom of a very clear lake, but I think this composting thing might be a more realistic option. Instead of getting all moldy in a grave or burnt to a creepy crisp, I can grow my very own dead Ashley tree!

Anyways, check this Mary Roach shit out, ya’ll. Especially Packing for Mars, because there is a whole chapter about pooping in space!

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #44: Bonk by Mary Roach

Curiosity seems to be Mary Roach’s raison d’etre, and bless her heart for that.

In our culture, especially outside the hallowed halls of science and academia, sex is viewed as titillating and scandalous — not to be talked about, no matter the context. And while I’m not going to get political here — because I super hate it when people do that in inappropriate places — I think that’s a huge detriment to our culture, and to us as participants in that culture. So props to Mary Roach for writing this book, and for making it so dang readable.

Bonk chronicles Roach’s investigations into the long and interesting history of science and sex. Specifically it’s a funny and matter of fact history of people who — like Roach — were curious about sex and the way things worked, and decided to do something about it. The book is pretty large in scope, covering everything from Alfred Kinsey to bicycle dildo cameras. In a couple of memorable incidents, she even goes so far as to make herself (and her good-sprited husband) research subjects when it becomes clear that she won’t be able to witness experiments in any other way.

It’s been almost a month since I finished this book, so the details have largely slipped my mind, but what remains memorable (aside from a few details that I will make sure to pop out at inappropriate times disguised as small talk) is the way that Roach insists on asking the questions that everyone wants to know but are too embarrassed to ask.

This was my second Mary Roach book (finished Stiff a couple weeks later) after I read Packing For Mars last year, and although she definitely has a formula at this point, it’s a fun formula, and I’m in for whatever wacky avenue of inquiry she thinks up next.

Katie’s #23 Review #CBR4 Review: Tycho and Kepler by Kitty Ferguson

Tycho and Kepler is a detailed biography of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, covering both their personal lives and their scientific careers.  It’s arranged in chronological order, smoothly transitioning between the two scientists.  I liked this format a lot because it made it so easy to see how their lives related to one another.  There was actually quite a lot of personal drama, although it was mostly presented an impersonal manner – enough so that I really want to read some historical fiction now to get a “first-person” perspective on this fascinating time period!

Read more here…

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