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. 

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