Book review – The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop

With the world in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the questions posed by the subtitle of this book are on everyone’s mind. Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Adam Kucharski here takes the reader through the inner workings of contagion. From violence and idea to financial crises and, of course, disease – some universal rules cut right across disciplines. So, is this the most topical book of the year? Well, yes and no.

The Rules of Contagion (more…)

Book review – Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose

Not long after posting my review of Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World I received an email from Dr Roslyn Fuller: since I had mentioned her book In Defence of Democracy, would I be interested in reviewing it? And so, a parcel arrived at Inquisitive Biologist HQ my living room with two books, with Beasts and Gods providing valuable background reading to In Defence of Democracy.

Many people feel disenchanted with politics, but can you really articulate why? Bar a select few politically engaged individuals I know (I am not one of them), most of us remain stuck in conspiratorial grumblings at the pub about corrupt politicians. Published in 2015, Beasts and Gods lays bare how modern democracies are invariably broken, examines democracy in ancient Athens, and asks what we can learn from them.

Beasts and Gods (more…)

Book review – Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA

The history of life is punctuated by major transitions and inventions: fish that moved onto land, reptiles that turned into birds. But how did these happen? In Some Assembly Required, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy Neil Shubin provides an up-to-date and utterly engrossing account of the latest thinking on the great transformations in evolution. And he has one clue for you: nothing ever begins when you think it does…

Some Assembly Required (more…)

Book review – Disaster by Choice: How Our Actions Turn Natural Hazards into Catastrophes

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. This is the provocative statement that Professor of Disasters and Health Ilan Kelman makes with Disaster by Choice. The title pretty much sums it up: Earth can be a violent place alright, but our actions, or lack thereof, turn these hazards into catastrophes that cause unnecessary death, damage, and destruction. So, what are we to do?

Disaster by Choice (more…)

Book review – Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Some books, it seems, sit on your shelf just waiting for the right moment. David Quammen’s Spillover may have been published back in 2012, but it eerily foreshadows the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic that currently keeps the world in its grip, and provides many insights. Right now, most people are of course concerned with the direct impact on public health and their jobs. While we try to slow down the spread of this disease, the global economy is taking a nosedive as country after country goes into lockdown. Once we come out on the other side though, there will be deeper questions to be asked. Could this happen again? How do we prevent that? And what the actual fuck just happened? Let Quammen be your guide, for, as he will show, everything comes from somewhere…

Spillover (more…)

Book review – Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth

Collapse is a feature, not a bug. This motto is almost like a mantra to physical chemist Ugo Bardi. He is interested in complex systems and how they collapse. Whether they be human-made structures, companies, societies, or ecosystems; he follows the thinking of Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BCE–65CE) who wrote, in Bardi’s words, that “growth is slow, but the way to ruin is rapid”. This led Bardi to write The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid in 2017, which was reviewed here previously. Now he is back with Before the Collapse, a book aimed at a wider audience that promises to help readers understand and navigate collapses in their lives.

Before the Collapse (more…)

Book review – Why Chimpanzees Can’t Learn Language and Only Humans Can

The title of this book leaves little to the imagination and seems like a strong statement – how can we be so sure? The author, behavioural psychologist Herbert S. Terrace, is in a very strong position to make this claim though. Here, he revisits a remarkable experiment conducted in the 1970s to teach a chimpanzee to speak using sign language that ultimately failed. Bringing together subsequent developments in linguistics, palaeoanthropology, and developmental psychology, he has written an incredibly interesting and well-structured book on the evolutionary basis of language.

Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can (more…)

Book review – A Book of Rather Strange Animals: Highlighting the Wonders of Evolution and the Extraordinary Diversity of Life

In a book that is the perfect example of a British understatement, bioscience graduate Caleb Compton presents a collection of 100 animals that are, indeed, rather strange. Based on his wildly successful Twitter feed @StrangeAnimals (62k followers as I write this), A Book of Rather Strange Animals goes just that little bit beyond the feed. And, to his credit, this is a selection of some truly unusual critters, some even I had never heard of before.

A Book of Rather Strange Animals (more…)

Book review – How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

This book is dangerous. While reading it I missed metro stops, phone calls, and sleep. I also laughed. A lot. Webcomic creator and former NASA engineer Randall Munroe returns to book form for another instalment of zany humour and absurd ideas, this time providing absurd solutions to achieving everyday tasks and solving real-world problems. From fording a river by boiling it dry using a field of 300 million electric kettles, to using a swarm of butterflies to send large data files: the solutions are purposefully ludicrous. Nevertheless, this book falls back on logical principles, giving readers both a good laugh and a gentle introduction to science, engineering, and technology.

How To (more…)

Book review – Fraud in the Lab: The High Stakes of Scientific Research

To outsiders, the idea that scientists would forge results might seem counterintuitive. After all, is science not supposed to be about inching ever closer, through endless iterations, to a truer picture of our world? Having worked in academia for ten years I know that the truth is a bit more nuanced. Even so, Fraud in the Lab, written by French investigative journalist Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis, was a shocking, damning and eye-opening exposé.

Fraud in the Lab (more…)