“Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Infections” by David Quammen (Norton, 2012)

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Spillover is one of those books that everyone should really read, even if it’s really scary and after completing it, you’d have problems doing anything without wondering what viruses might be waiting to attach themselves to your skin. Bestselling author David Quammen looks to perhaps scare you with Spillover, but ultimately educate on both the history of these viruses and what the current status is of them today.

The book is divided into parts and features a thorough coverage of viruses like Ebola, SARS, Hendra and AIDS to name a few, as well as infections like hepatitis and malaria. Each part features an interesting history of the particular virus or disease, how it was first discovered and the devastation it has caused throughout the world, and then a look into its current situation and what it might bode for the future. Quammen is quick to point out in the Ebola chapter of how one being infected by the virus is more likely to show symptoms and the less bloody stages one goes through to death, as opposed to the sensationalist portrayal of someone dying of Ebola in Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. The AIDS chapter is perhaps the most fascinating in covering the detailed history of the virus and how it is one that is still killing many and while there are medications that help, it is still one that shouldn’t be easily forgotten about.

After finishing Spillover, in addition to being somewhat terrified, readers will also feel as if they’ve ingested an important volume of knowledge and will feel educated now on most of the world’s known diseases and ready to face the next pandemic when it comes . . . or at the least be a little more hygienic in their daily lives and wash their hands more often.

Originally written on February 17, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Gulp” by Mary Roach (Norton, 2013)

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Mary Roach, bestselling author of Stiff and Bonk, brings her host of avid non-fiction readers to a whole new arena with Gulp.  Welcome to the alimentary canal, a politely titled journey from a single bite passing through our bodies into the toilet bowl.  Just as with her other books, Roach employs her patented humor and obsession for the detailed and at times gross.

Unsurprisingly, Roach begins with the mouth and taste and the importance of the sense of smell with taste.  She recounts her meeting with a person whose job is to taste wines and beers that are “off” in some way.  This person has such a developed and trained palate, she knows what has been done wrong in the fermenting of the beer, or the preparation of the wine.  Roach then continues on down the gullet with succinct chapters on each part, providing lots of details of how it all works, what the process is, and plenty of facts you might have never wanted to know about your throat, or stomach, or intestine.  But the book is also bursting with lots of information to increase one’s general knowledge, such as why stomach acid doesn’t burn through your stomach lining.  The shocking answer is that it actually does, but the stomach lining is constantly being replaced with fresh, new stomach lining cells.  And this is why a dead person’s stomach acid will burn through their stomach.

Perhaps Gulp’s only failing is that the reader is left wanting to know and learn more, but the book has to end somewhere.  In addition to biological and science details, Roach also provides lots of stories and histories of past experiments of what was done in learning about these body parts and how they worked.  And for those really curious, yes, there are multiple chapters on flatulence.  Readers will not be disappointed, but they never are with Mary Roach.

Originally written on April 27, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Gulp from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Gold Rush in the Jungle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s ‘Lost World’” by Dan Drolette Jr. (Crown, 2013)

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There is a secret in this world, a very important one that may disappear before we even know it was there.  Vietnam is a nation filled with history and culture, but it is also a unique haven to some of the rarest animals on the planet; it is also one of the few places in this world where new species of fauna continue to be discovered.  Gold Rush in the Jungle is the story of this most unique place.

Dan Drolette Jr. has been a quasi-naturalist; a nature and animal lover since he was a child, discovering a fascination and continuing with it throughout his life.  He has written for publications such as Scientific American, Cosmos, Science, Boston Globe, and Natural History.  His travels have taken him exploring and writing about flora and fauna as far and wide as Hawaii, Sweden, South Korea and Australia.  Drolette Jr. first went to Vietnam in the late nineties and knew he had to return to study and write about his special place, which he did.  Gold Rush in the Jungle is the culmination of all this work.

Vietnam’s jungles have remained relatively untouched, going through a turbulent history and a devastating war; ironically this has led to a somewhat protected habitat for its many species and plans. It has held back development and the advancement of civilization into the jungles, allowing the many animals to live in peace and multiply.  But since the nineties, things have gone quickly downhill.  With the rapid growth in animal trophies, and the use of animal parts as widely disproven medicines in china, poaching has become a very big business.

Fortunately, there are those who are fighting against this, starting up conservation groups and protected places in Vietnam, as well as national parks, one created as long ago as the 1960s with Ho Chi Minh.  It is a very moving story, to see how animals like certain bears are barely kept alive to have their bile surgically removed, or the rhinoceros that used to inhabit these jungles and can no longer be found.  Drolette Jr. goes into the history of this country, talking about certain rare animals that have since gone extinct, but there is still hope that one day they may resurface from these dense ecosystems.

Fans of Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth will love Gold Rush in the Jungle, with Drolette Jr.’s easy to read style that sucks you in, opens your eyes, and educates you with ideas and thoughts you have likely never had.  It is a powerful story of a very real place that is like no other, and will stay with you long after you have read the last page.

Originally written on February 26, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Gold Rush in the Jungle from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (Viking, 2012)

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Rabies.  Rabid.  The words automatically conger up images and ideas; ravenous animals, primarily dogs.  Slavering at the mouth; demented and violent.  You’re probably also thinking about Cujo, whether it is the movie or the book by Stephen King.  All these ideas are correct, in a way, but few people know the whys and hows.  Few know that when someone is suffering from rabies, they have an innate aversion to water; just seeing a glass of it will make them turn violent as they try to get away from it.  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is the story of the hows and whys of rabies.

Authors Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy take the reader on a combined history, sociological and science lesson.  They go way back into the past looking at where the virus likely first originated, where it first appears in the written word, and how it has been used throughout history in writing.  How the word has changed and become part of our vocabulary.  Rabid is also a look at how society has dealt with the disease through time and across the globe.  And finally, the authors give you the science behind the virus, how it infects, how it affects, and what exactly makes it work.  It is a fascinating read on a disease that many know little about.

Originally written on October 23, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Rabid from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True” by Richard Dawkins, illustrated by Dave McKean (Free Press, 2011)

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Richard Dawkins, bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, needs little introduction; and neither does illustrator Dave McKean, who has worked with a number of well-known authors, including Neil Gaiman, and was the creator behind the movie MirrorMask.  Now the two have joined together to bring you a unique book of science and evolution called The Magic of Reality.

In the first chapter of The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins sets the stage with an important explanation of the differences between reality and how incredible it can be, and the impressiveness of magic and miracles and how they are just illusions and not real.  The book explores a number of astonishing things about our world and universe, and how we have come to know it, such as: who the first person was, what things are made of, what is the sun, what is a rainbow, and what is an earthquake, to name a few.  The last two chapters are perhaps the most important, as Dawkins talks about why bad things happen to people, and what exactly a miracle is.

The Magic of Reality is an important read for anyone who is uncertain about the world we live and how it came to be the way it is.  Dawkins puts thoughts and sayings, extreme coincidences, good and bad luck in perspective, saying you may think it an incredible series of incidents to lead to a specific point that it may seem like there is some power or force behind it, but when you study each of those incidents on a scientific level, it all makes perfect sense to be just that: an incredible coincidence.  Coupled with Dave McKean’s captivating and mind-blowing illustrations to help illustrate points and reveal the complexity of seemingly ordinary things, The Magic of Reality is an important book to have, whether you’re looking to help an adult make up their minds about something, or constructively and efficiently educating a youngster who is learning about science and the way of life.

Originally written on November 20, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Magic of Reality from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks” by Juliet Eilperin (Pantheon, 2011)

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If you’re reading this, chances are you have some sort of fear of sharks . . . and maybe by discovering what Demon Fish is about, you will confront these fears, learn more about these incredible fish, and in turn come to respect them as the amazing creatures that they are.  Well, if there was a book that could help you with that, Demon Fish is certainly it.

Juliet Eilperin works for the Washington Post.  Her first book was on politics, Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives, but in April of 2004 she covered the environment for the national desk, reporting on science, climate change, and the oceans.  If there were a comprehensive biography of the ancient, long-lived fish known as the shark, Demon Fish would qualify.  Eilperin begins with an introduction of her first meeting with these majestic yet powerful and terrifying creatures, and how she grew to appreciate them.  She tells the story of the World-Famous Shark Callers found on the island of Papua New Guinea, who have been hunting these fish for centuries with a ritualistic method that involves calling the shark, then capturing it; once killed every part of the fish is used in some way.  But Shark Calling is a dying art, especially when there are other companies that use more modern technology to deplete the nearby shark populations.

Eilperin’s chapter on “An Ancient Fish” presents a full history of the shark, starting long ago during the time of the dinosaurs when they were massive creatures feared by just about everything beneath the waves (and above no doubt), to the smaller but no less frightening versions of today.  The shark is in fact one of the oldest, longest living creatures on the planet, and now has over four hundred species.  Eilperin travels the world, visiting and working with different people who interact with sharks in different ways: whether it’s fishing for them, taking tourists out to see them and attempt to catch them, or tagging and conserving and protecting them however they can.  She devotes a significant portion of the book to the shark fin industry, which is the biggest threat to this fish, as the restaurants of Asia (as well as many others around the world) continue to serve shark fin soup, even though it doesn’t taste of much – as Eilperin makes clear – but is a cultural expectation, not just in Asian restaurants but expected to be served at weddings as a sign of the bride’s family’s noble standing.

Demon Fish doesn’t attempt to convince or convert or proselytize on the threatened numbers and species of shark around the world; Eilperin just presents the facts and realities for what they are in many different places across the globe.  It is clear that things are not fine with this ancient fish, and when the likes of Jaws and other similar stories continue to perpetuate this fear of a gravely misunderstood creature, Demon Fish does an excellent job of informing and educating, making one realize at the end that the shark is simply another one of the incredibly unique animals populating this planet and has just as much right to live and breed and exist as all the others do, including the many humans who fear it.

Originally written on September 23, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Amazon and help support BookBanter.

An exclusive interview with Juliet Eilperin will be available on BookBanter on November 15th.

“Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100” by Michio Kaku (Doubleday, 2011)

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Michio Kaku, a professor of physics at the CUNY Graduate Center, sure knows how to make science both gripping and interesting.  After the great bestseller, Physics of the Impossible, which tackled all those great science fiction inventions we’ve heard so much about in books, going in detail about when these said inventions would plausibly be invented; he brings things closer to home in Physics of the Future, focusing on inventions developments over the next century.

In his new book, Kaku goes into detail where the next hundred years will take us on a number of different subjects, and what possible great things humanity will come up with next.  The chapters run the gamut from the future of the computer, AI, nanotechnology and medicine, to where the future of wealthy, energy, and humanity will take us.  Each chapter is divided into three parts: the near future, covering the present until 2030; midcentury from 2030-2070; and the far future from 2070-2100.  In each of these parts, Kaku covers important discoveries and inventions that will be developed, working off of the technology and knowledge of the current period.

Kaku fans and science readers will love Physics of the Future because, while Physics of the Impossible was pretty disheartening to learn that a lot of the cool inventions like transporters and time travel would not be invented until many thousands of years in the future, Physics of the Future covers a lot of fascinating technology that will be developed in many of our lifetimes.

Originally written on September 21, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

“Deep Future the Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth” by Curt Stager (Thomas Dunne, 2011)

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The only people who haven’t come to accept the fact that global warming and climate change is happening are those who are not facing reality, deluding themselves; and while many of us have ideas, thoughts and concepts of what climate change may bring over the next century, Deep Future goes one giant step further for Earth.  Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist and science journalist, who has written for National Geographic and Science magazine.  In Deep Future he goes into detail on what effect climate change will have on our planet not just over the hundred years, but over the next hundred thousand.

Stager makes clear two things early on in the book.  One is that the likelihood of the world falling into an ice age any time soon are pretty much impossible, as the required level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was far exceeded some time ago, regardless of whether the Gulf Stream stalls or not.  The other is that we are now living in a new age, which is coming to be known as the Anthropocene, better known as the Age of Humanity or the Age of Humans.  It is the age in which everything we have done and everything we do has a long-lasting effect on our planet.  Eleven detailed chapters with titles like: “Beyond Global Warming,” “Oceans of Acid,” “The Rising Tide,” and “An Ice-Free Arctic,” Stager doesn’t hold back in giving the grim news of the future of our planet.  The point that he makes clear is that this isn’t going to happen tomorrow; it’s going to take hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of years.  We are also coming towards the end of our fossil fuels, meaning we will eventually not be able to continue heating up the planet any more.  A plateau will be reached in the far future, and then the earth will eventually return to normal in the very distant future.

While many of the devastating effects discussed in Deep Future will not come to fruition for a long time, they are nevertheless fascinating and disturbing to discover, and Stager is sure to keep readers informed of what they can do now to alleviate some of these seemingly inevitable events.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on March 4, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Reinventing the Sacred: A View of Science, Reason and Religion” by Stuart A. Kauffman (Basic Books, 2008)

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Stuart A. Kauffman is the founding director for Biocomplexity and Informatics, is a professor at the University of Calgary, and is the author of The Origins of Order and At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.  In his new book, Reinventing the Sacred: A View of Science, Reason, and Religion, he attempts to create a natural linkage between science and religion, or at least between science and spirituality.  On the one side there is religion and the idea that God created and controls everything, and on the other there is the cold universe of science explained by facts and the constant motion of microscopic particles; Kauffman says there is a third option, bringing these two opposing views together.

Beginning with a brief history lesson on science, Kauffman cites the age of reason and enlightenment as the time when scientists removed all sense of spirituality and creativity from science, with the move towards reductionism.  Through reductionism, science boiled all life and reality down to its base, microscopic levels with the various atoms and their components.  In the twentieth century, reductionism went one step further, venturing into the world of sub-atomic particles and how it is the movement of these infinitesimal particles that is reality and existence as we know it, with future events and actions being predictable through this model.

And yet there are still events and occurrences, Kauffman says, that science was entirely unable to predict, such as certain evolutionary traits that animals and people develop, which should, under this reductionist paradigm, be predictable, and yet come as a total shock to scientists when they occur.  Another example is with sociology and the economy: with our vast global population, science is unable to predict events occurring within populations and economies, even when precise models exist for them.  It is here that Kauffman says there is something special going on, a spirituality of life that makes impossible, unpredictable things happen.

This is the crux of Reinventing the Sacred and at times Kauffman tends to repeat himself over and over with ideas already expressed, as well as sayings that become all to familiar.  Nevertheless, Reinventing the Sacred does offer up some very original and refreshing ideas on how one can view the university in its astonishing complexity and brilliant creativity.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 20th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing” Edited by Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 2008)

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Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, The Ancestor’s Tale, and The God Delusion, needs no introduction having established himself as a reputable voice when discussing science in its many forms.  His latest effort is The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, in a hefty tome, where Dawkins attempts to present a concise view of science to the world in many short passages from many different scientists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that tessellate together to form a beautiful volume of writing.

The book is divided into four parts, as Dawkins organizes the vast wealth of science writing available not in chronological order, but groups the extracts into the following categories: “What Scientists Study,” “Who Scientists Are,” “What Scientists Think,” “What Scientists Delight in.”  Organizing it this ways serves to make the book more entertaining in the variety of subjects that are presented when the book is read from cover to cover.  Should the reader want to use the book more as a reference tool or to look up some specific authors or terms, there is a thorough index at the end of the book.  With each extract, Dawkins offers up his own commentary and reason for choosing the specific piece.

All the great scientists make an appearance here: Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick, Brian Greene, Jared Diamond, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Primo Levi, the list goes on and on.  But this list is not reserved for the greats of science, but many of the women and men who have worked hard in their lives to further the knowledge of science in areas such as genetics, evolution, string theory, relativity, and mathematics.  The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is a weighty, comprehensive book with almost everything science has had to offer in the last hundred years or so, and while it may not be for the science novice, the ideas, theories, and hypotheses expressed in this book have reshaped science, and offered up hope and ideals for future answers and theories that will continue to change the world as we know it.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 10th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.