Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is extremely famous in the world of science-communication, mostly for his show Cosmos -- that's why, when I made the goal last August to read 15 pop science books in a year, his Cosmos was one of the first to come to mind. 


                          ★★☆☆

I bought Cosmos and tried reading it a few weeks ago but didn't get far in (mostly because of the very annoying font), but Leon bought me The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark for my upcoming birthday so I read it. 

Unfortunately, this reads more like the rantings of a fourteen-year-old militant atheist than the writing of a widely-respected scientist. He spent several long chapters describing and debunking alien abduction myths which (a) don't interest me at all (b) I didn't need debunked. I also don't think they're really much to do with science. In general, the book was mostly about hoaxes and then some ranting about how science isn't prioritised.

It was weird because a lot of his points seemed to line up exactly with my views, the central points about how scientific thinking is important for democracy and we should share it with everyone, but he does it a lot less positively? He just seems to focus on the negative impacts of scientific illiteracy and is angry about a lack of progress, which I suppose is fair if he'd spent his life working on it and not gotten very far, and I definitely acknowledge the risks of scientific illiteracy, but I also believe in sharing science because it's something positive people deserve access to, and I didn't get that vibe off him. He goes on a diatribe about how shows like the Flintstones are not scientifically accurate (in fairness, they're billed as educational) and it's just kind of like...come on, man. 

Yet again, I don't think I was the target audience for this book even though a lot of it should've lined up with my beliefs, because I already study science. He put down Maxwell's equations (which I don't know) and said they were very difficult to understand and involved vectors, then "explained" vectors in an unbelievably vague way that did not at all line up with their definitions as I know them from college, and it sucked because people who haven't studied it wouldn't know that it wasn't actually telling them anything, they'd probably just take him at his word that it's really hard. I'm not denying that the equations are hard or that they're a great achievement, but I feel like he didn't make much of an effort to explain it, content to say "it's hard" and move on. Again, I'm not saying he could explain Maxwell's equations in a perfectly accessible way, but vectors themselves are not that difficult a concept and it's weird that he gave up just because he couldn't explain the full equations accessibly. 

He talked about the witch trials a fair bit and damn, they sound awful, and the book certainly didn't endear me to religion. But yeah, just a very angry atheist vibe all over. It's fine to be angry about the abuses of the Catholic Church, but I much prefer a more constructive approach. 

I think the main issue with the book was it didn't really have any central narrative thread -- it was much more like a series of blog or forum posts than a book. Two chapters, for example, contained just reprintings of letters he'd received, presented without comment. Sure, they were interesting, but added to the blog impression. I think if Sagan had lived later it's quite likely each chapter could've been written as a blog post. Not what I expected. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

15 Pop Science Books: Roundup

In August 2016, I set 14 goals to complete by the end of June 2017. One of those, and one I successfully completed, was to read 15 popular science books. Here's a roundup of those. 

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson



★★

A rollicking read filled with personal spats between scientists and an easily readable explanation of a huge range of subjects, including space, paleontology, evolution, particle physics, microbiology, anthropology and more. Only issues were some annoying numerical errors and an avoidance of scientific notation. Review here, feat. hilarious quotes. 



2. Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee



★★★ (yes, 6 stars)

An absolutely incredible book, covering the history of cancer suffering, diagnosis and treatment over thousands of years, plus the writer-doctor's own experiences with his patients. The book takes a compassionate approach to patients and a cutting one to cons and charlatans, covering ill-fated radical mastectomies, the first leukemia treatments for children that were about as likely to kill the child as the disease was, the evidence linking smoking and lung cancer and the tobacco industry's fight against it, the rise of patient advocates, and much more. Made me cry. For some reason, I didn't review this book. Probably because it knocked me flat. 



3. Zero to One: Notes on Startups by Peter Thiel

★★★★


Okay fine, this isn't science. It's only barely tech, but I read it for tech so hush. 

This was really interesting, filled with lots of trade knowledge, from how PayPal got started to monopolism to easy vs hard vs impossible problems to intersection markets vs union markets. I would not recommend buying it, though, because he's a horrible person, so if you want to read it get the free MIT copy online.

Review here. 




4. Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman


★★★★

Neurotribes is a masterful tome that traces the history of our understanding of autism from "childhood psychosis" to changeling children to refrigerator mothers to neurodiversity, through the horrifying extermination of disabled people during the Holocaust and the eugenics movement and the growth of nerd culture's creation of Aspie communities. Occasionally gets bogged down, like on ham radios, but overall illuminating, comprehensive and important. Highly recommended. 







5. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre



★★★★



Sheds light on the dodgy doings of pharmaceutical companies in all their mundane horrors -- no hiding a cure for cancer, more fudging results to get a borderline drug on the market. I found the part about how they can mess with scientific papers most interesting, loved the introduction to systematic meta-analyses (forest plots <3) and enjoyed the ideas for making trials more reliable, like pre-registration. He also talks about pharma companies bribing doctors and lots of other ways bias is introduced, and about half of the book is about ways medicine is broken other than pharma (#marketingploy). He tries to involve the public in every chapter, something it seems like his publisher may have told him to do, because a lot of it is just like: "Things you can do as a member of the public: call your representative" in every chapter. I didn't enjoy it as much as Bad Science, but still a pretty good read that really could've done without the witch-hunt vibe. 3.5 stars.

Review here. 

6. Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom



★★★★

This is definitely the hard-scienciest book on the list, and honestly probably doesn't even count as popular science. It's, as far as I can tell, the book on AI, and it's essentially a textbook. It covers lots and lots of different angles, is incredibly clever (you can constantly see evidence that the writer has thought about it a lot, which is good since that's their job) and taught me a huge amount so I'm really glad I read it even though it was difficult to get through. The difficulty doesn't actually come from any technical terms, he just writes incredibly academically with a stunning vocabulary so I had to keep looking things up. A strong contender for most I've learned from any single book. 

Review here.

7. The Social Animal by David Brooks

★★

A very strange book, a mix of fiction and non fiction. The Social Animal talks about the social and subconscious development of humans by telling the story of two humans' lives and filling it with facts. I liked the "trees", the psychological facts it's peppered with, but didn't like the "forest", which held sweeping generalizations and a religious ethos. Review here. 




8. The Meaning of Science by Tim Lewens

★★★★☆  




I loved some of this, and even enjoyed the less relevant second half. The first chapter was about whether we can trust science, about Karl Popper's idea that you can only disprove things via experiment and never actually prove things no matter how much evidence you build up, and then an argument against Popper's that you can't even do that because to disprove things you need to do experiments with assumptions that you get from other theories. It talks about whether science is real and rebuts underdeterminism and pessimistic induction, and then the second section talks about the bearing of science on philosophical questions in our lives, like whether we have free will. The arguments were very solid and you could see they'd been thought about a lot. The second half was less relevant but still interesting. Would recommend. Review here.

9. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

★★☆ (debatably one star for saying women can't do linear algebra)

This was a disappointing collection of essays by Richard Feynman, because I'd heard such good things about him and for the most part the essays weren't enjoyable (though some, e.g. at Los Alamos, were), he was really sexist and honestly just seemed like a bit of an ass. I don't care that it was the 1950s or whatever, because if he was smart enough to figure out quantum electrodynamics he should've been smart enough to figure out that women are people. The book also just didn't grab me -- I put it down for months after starting it. Review here








10. CODE: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold

 ★★★★

This book goes through the nuts and bolts of computers, taking you from simple electrical systems up to basic programming. I did expect a lot more, y'know, code -- the vast majority of it was hardware, and most of the code was machine code -- but I did learn quite a lot and it definitely answered the question I asked Leon's housemate which caused her to recommend the book: how do computers actually work? Without the abstraction? Definitely a book you need a pen and paper to understand. First half's a lot better than the second. Review here





11. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi

★★★★

A moving story by a former brain surgeon who died of lung cancer, with half the book on his medical training, his journey to the very end of training and incredible job offers and success lined up, and then his diagnosis of lung cancer and decline. It's a really interesting insight into both sides of the table, from anatomy classes and doing surgery to terminal cancer. The book made me cry, and a lot of the sadness is that Kalanathi spent a life in preparation, always working really hard for the future and his career, and just as he was about to start it was all torn from him. As for the first half, there was just so much gravity to it, the story of this ancient, sacred profession, sacred in the sense of our shared humanity -- the wonder of consciousness and the sadness of its extinction. Also, the writing style is beautiful. Review here



12. Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

★★★★

Another neurosurgeon memoir! I really like doctor-writers. This guy didn't die early though, and this book was written after he retired about his mistakes in neurosurgery and about the power and potential for things to go wrong. Each chapter is named after a different brain ailment and man, brain surgery is barbaric and awe-inspiring. Like When Breath Becomes Air, it renewed my passion to go into biomedical science and cure diseases because they're so unfair. A very moving book, highly recommended. Review here







13. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

★☆☆☆☆
Hated this book, absolutely hated it. I'd heard such good things about Oliver Sacks, and this is supposedly his best book, but it was just terrible. He wrote in the most unbelievably purple prose, constantly referenced some psychologist called Luria (which would be fine if it was actually academic, but everything was incredibly wishy-washy and fairly pseudoscientific, which honestly has made me distrust neurology if he's the best they have to offer) and was horrible about the people he profiled, acting as if they were freaks and he their benevolent freakshow master at best and outright insulting them at first (e.g. saying autistic people are incapable of thinking abstractly or doing science). Both massively offensive and a huge pain in the ass to read because of the poor writing -- and it worries me that people consider this good, because that says something about what people think of (e.g.) autistic people. Burn it. Review here.

14. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

★★☆☆☆



Saw rave reviews saying the book talked about botany and her experience researching it, was disappointed to find out it's actually just a memoir with very very little actual science. Sure, like I was told, roughly every second chapter was about trees; the issue is that the trees were being used as a vehicle for her memoir. She'd spend a chapter waxing lyrical about how hard trees must try to survive, and segue into how hard she had to try. She'd talk about how trees reproduce (without using any actual scientific terminology or mechanisms or studies or, well, specifics) and segue into her own experience of giving birth. For someone who talks so much about how much she loves botany, she wrote almost none of it. There were only about three actual studies cited, and those were very interesting -- I just wish they'd been half the book like I was expecting, and I could've actually learned a significant amount about the science of plants. She led in well, made it sound so interesting, how plants give the whole biological world its energy, but then didn't deliver the goods on how that happens. Disappointing. Review here


15. The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

★★☆☆☆

Carl Sagan is very well respected in the science communication world, so I was disappointed to find out that this book is more like a series of blog posts by a fourteen year old militant atheist. 















I really loved some of the books, had a bad time with others (and there was something of a trend, see graph), but I'm really glad I did the challenge. 












Goals Roundup: One Year Later

I had a bad summer in 2016, one I spent largely in bed moping after being exhausted by the Leaving Cert and not having any holidays or programmes planned. By the end of July, I was sick of it, and at the start of August I wrote a list of 14 goals that I would aim to complete by the end of July 2017. That time, amazingly, has come, so it's time to see how I fared on the goals. 

The options are:

  • Completed goal (10 points)
  • Made significant progress with goal (5 points)
  • Made no significant progress with goal (0 points)
  • Decided goal wasn't actually a priority for me/Dropped - remove from total


Here they are: 

1. Complete Nobel Project for Physics and Chemistry 
This was to write a paragraph on all of the Nobel-winning projects in the Physics and Chemistry categories since the prize began, to try and understand some of the history of the subjects. 

I completed this for Physics ahead of schedule and realised I didn't actually like Chemistry and that this was just a busywork project so decided not to start the Chemistry half. I'm going to strike off Chemistry and count this as completed.

You can read the Physics project entries here

Verdict: Completed 

2. Get Syndicalab running in 3 locations
This was to open citizen labs in three locations and have them running. While myself and friends did do some work on it, including market research and a bunch of meetings, this did not happen. 

Verdict: No significant progress

3. Organise college science fair
This didn't happen, although I did become Physoc secretary and I think we are organising an undergraduate physics conference which may have posters. Still, a no on this one. Definitely a symptom of making the goal before I actually entered college.

Verdict: No significant progress

4. Read 15+ popular science books

Completed! I read 

  1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  2. Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  3. Zero to One by Peter Thiel
  4. Neurotribes by Steve Silberman
  5. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  6. Superintellgence by Nick Bostrom
  7. The Social Animal by David Brooks
  8. The Meaning of Science by Tim Lewens
  9. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
  10. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold
  11. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi
  12. Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
  13. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks 
  14. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  15. The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

So that's 15, and just before the time started I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and just after the deadline I'm reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. 

Verdict: Complete!

5. Do a research project

I didn't do this at all, which I'm quite disappointed by. College was really busy and I barely even thought about it. I'd like to do it soon, though I don't know when, and in general I'd really like to make more use of college facilities. 

Verdict: No significant progress

6. Reach 1000+ students with antibiotic resistance campaign

I got just over 400 in person plus some more online, but I did mean in person. Again, time management and getting swamped by college. That said, the project has made a lot of progress and has now become an organisation called Lablinn with an awesome team. We have a collaboration running with the Stemettes to get our material into schools across the UK, I've come up with a much improved and much more hands-on workshop, and we're working on schools events, library events and a UK & Ireland public health competition as well as providing information online. So that's progress. 

Verdict: Significant progress

7. Challenge assumptions 

This was about trying to think more deliberately and investigate my beliefs but I deprioritised it so this was dropped. 

Verdict: Dropped

8. Perform music for a decent audience 3 times

Just didn't really prioritise it. 

Verdict: Dropped

9. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise 90%+ of days

I didn't always count it but I'd say I got this most days, bearing in mind that I was counting walking as exercise. That's because I wrote this goal after spending a month basically in my room and this forced me to get outside even if it was just to walk the dog. It probably happened 80% of the time, maybe 90%, so it's difficult to know where to count it, but it achieved its purpose so I'll count it as done.

Verdict: Completed

10. Speak at 6+ events 

Done!


  1. TEDxDrogheda
  2. TY Expo
  3. Zeminar
  4. European Talent Support Network in Budapest 
  5. Dublin Tech Summit
  6. European Youth Summit Budapest
  7. Probably other things I forget? And also if you count each antibiotic resistance talk that's like, triple the amount? Already 6 anyway. I also spoke at Inspirefest in July.
Verdict: Complete

11. Get a First in College

This one is sad. Did not anticipate how hard college would be/how much work it would require and did nowhere near enough study. Got a 2.1. At least I know what I need to do for next year. 

Verdict: Significant progress

12. Blog (on average) at least weekly

This meant 52 blog posts over the year. I did (each month) 9 + 2 + 2 + 4 + 6 + 6 + 1 + 3 + 6 + 2 + 7 + 6 = 54. It definitely could've been more even, and you can really see that I was more active outside college term, but I did it. 

Verdict: Complete!

13. Publish 20+ paid freelance articles

I got paid for 12 freelance articles. I think this is because at the time I wrote this I didn't know I'd get the Naughton scholarship so I thought I'd have to support myself with freelance writing, then in the end didn't have to rely on it. Still, more than half done.

Verdict: Significant progress

14. Do 2 YP-ETSN projects

YP-ETSN = Youth Platform of the European Talent Support Network, the council of which I am on. I was a main organiser of the European Youth Summit in Budapest in March, so that's one, and we worked on a related EU charter there so I could count that as #2, or could count the survey I helped develop. Either way, done.

Verdict: Complete

So if I cross out the dropped projects and mark the complete ones green, the "significant progress" ones blue and the "no progress" ones red, let's see what it looks like.

1. Complete Nobel Project for Physics and Chemistry 
2. Get Syndicalab running in 3 locations
3. Organise college science fair
4. Read 15 popular science books
5. Do a research project
6. Reach 1000 students with antibiotic resistance campaign
7. Challenge assumptions
8. Perform music 3 times
9. Exercise
10. Speak at 6 events
11. Get a first in College
12. 52 blog posts
13. Publish 20 paid freelance articles
14. Do 2 YP-ETSN projects

So if I give each completed task 10 points, each "significant progress" 5 and each "no progress" 0, I got 60 + 15 = 75/120 possible points. Which, considering they were all fairly ambitious goals, is okay.

I have a better idea what college is like and what demands it puts on my time now, and I'm going to try to focus my efforts much more on Lablinn and less on busywork things like the Nobel project that I did just to be working and the freelance writing, and perhaps less on specifically looking for opportunities to speak at things, though I'll be open to those that come my way. My priorities now are college and Lablinn. When I write this year's goals, I'll have to be careful not to put in random things like the assumptions and music ones there, and to think more and make sure they're goals I really want. 

I'm glad I set the goals. Even though I only achieved 63% of them, they still took my aims pretty far and I'm proud of the ones I made progress on. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: July 2017

Hey guys! 

July was full of work at my actual real paying adult job, which involved days that lasted 16 hours from leaving the house to getting back, but I had time for a few other cool things, including Leon, Lablinn, reading, Harvard and Biology. Let's go. 


JOB @ CTYI: Despite the very long days, I really enjoyed my job as a Teaching Assistant at CTYI (Biotechnology in Session 1 and Medicine in Session 2). I had the older students in Session 2, which was awesome, and we got on really well. It was really nice having such a good rapport with the students but also being able to manage them and get things done when necessary. My students were awesome. 




LEON: I stayed with Leon for a significant majority of the month. It was awesome. We played games and watched a bunch of Brooklyn 99. Here are some pictures of when we went for a walk in Glendalough. 

















And here's a picture of Leon after I beat him at Carcassonne (don't be misled -- he wins the vast majority of the time).



LABLINN: July was a big month for Lablinn, as it's when we had our first team call. It was awesome, and the team is working really well and I'm delighted with it. We're planning more schools workshops, a library event, and a public health awareness competition for the UK and Ireland and it is super cool. Check out the site here and the team at lablinn.com/team

BIOLOGY: I studied a lot of Biology out of Campbell's Biology textbook and made about 30 pages of notes. It's so interesting, I love it a lot. Should probably change my subject choices but alas I am indecisive. 

HARVARD: I'm almost finished the Harvard Business X summer course I'm taking -- on 86% in accounting and the high seventies in Analytics (Stats) and Economics. I've learned a ton, it's pretty cool.



READING: I completed the goal I set last August to read 15 popular science books between then and the end of July by reading Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World (an early birthday gift from Leon, review soon), Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (review) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (review). That last one may have been in June but the review was in July, so there. 

In summary: a pretty uniform month because of work, but I am really excited about the work we're doing at Lablinn, and about studying more biology and Leon. In August, events will include a trip to London for a Lablinn x Stemettes collaboration, the Summer Leadership Academy, a work reception, my 19th birthday and six month-iversary with Leon, finishing Harvard, and a trip to Prague and Vienna to see my Youth Platform pals. Woot.