Category Archives: Science and Nature

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

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Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends. – D. Vader

Lisa Randall, a Harvard Science professor, member of the National Academy of Sciences, named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time Magazine in 2007, and author of three previous books, likes to think big. She also likes to think small. Her areas of expertise are particle physics and cosmology, which certainly covers a range. The big look she offers here is a cosmological take on not only how it came to pass that a large incoming did in the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but why such decimations of life on Earth arrive with some (on a cosmological scale) regularity. Her explanation has to do with dark matter. It makes for an interesting tale, and offers an excellent example of how the scientific method (how Daniel Day Louis might play Louis Pasteur?) approaches problem-solving. It is a fascinating read that is at times wondrously accessible and at others like trying to bat away a swarm of meteoroids.

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Dark Matter

As with most good communicators of science. Randall relies on metaphor, and some of hers are quite good. My favorite compared methods of detecting dark matter to detecting the presence of [insert name of your favorite A-list celebrity here]. You can tell that there is something going on, without actually having to see the celebrity, because you can see swarms, gaggles, pods and packs of paparazzi clumping around the object of their lenses as he/she/it walks/primps/flees down the street. Dark matter affects the things around it too, and it is by measuring those effects that we can tell it is there, even though it remains…you know…dark.

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Lisa Randall – from her Twitter pages

She addresses some cosmological questions and offers up the answers that the best current theories provide. One example is that the rotational velocity of stars should be sufficient to make them literally spin out of their galaxies, and yet they don’t. Something must be keeping them in place. Care to guess? There are more like this. They vary in Wow-Cool! levels. Randall takes us from a look at how we know dark matter is out there, and its characteristics, to an overview of our solar system. This is more interesting than a science class slide show of the 8 (or 9 if you are my age) planets circling around our sun. (Well, maybe I should say your sun, but I don’t really want to get into that) There is a lot of other material cruising around out there, and it is significant, as in Please, oh please, do not come crashing into our planet, pretty please.

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Path of the New Horizons spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt – from NASA

The Kuiper Belt, a group of clumped asteroids, not an award for the baddest Kuiper, and the Oort Cloud (not where Obchestvo Remeslenogo Truda keeps its data) for example, are parts of our solar system, and move through inter-stellar space along with the sun and planets.

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The Oort Cloud – From NASA

You might think of the sundry members of the Solar System as a family all stuffed into one very, very large car of the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island. Once everyone is in, the whole crew moves through space (or circle in this instance) as one. But what if there were another Wonder Wheel, one that was made, not of the dense ordinary matter, but of the much thinner dark sort. Let’s say that it is not vertical but does its spinning thing at an angle. And let’s say it intersected our Wonder Wheel at one point. And every so often, say every thirty some odd million years, the car our solar system is in intersects the material in that other Wonder Wheel. The result could be unpleasant. The big stuff would probably be ok, our sun, the planets, but some of the smaller bits, say rocks in the Oort cloud and Kuiper Belt, might get knocked out of their usual paths. And voila! Fireworks! Big incomings headed our way yet again.

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Well, that’s the scoop. I am not giving anything away by laying it out. The value of the book lies in showing how theories are examined, tested and accepted or discarded, the scientific method in action.

But I would not want to make you think the orbit you take while reading Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is all clear sailing. There are incomings you have to contend with. It is always takes a bit more effort to absorb material when much of it is new to the reader, particularly when there are many new words, acronyms and concepts being thrown at you. I confess that there were points in reading this book when my eyes glazed over. It felt like I was reading a list in a foreign language. My mind went a bit dark in the chapter on how galaxies are born and in a couple of particle physics chapters near the end. On the other hand, enough of the early discussion of dark matter was utterly fascinating. When Randall writes of a second, post-Big-Bang expansion of the universe, it was news to me. I quite enjoyed the tour through our solar system, one that included parts we do not usually think of. And if you ever wondered about how three words are used, the answer is here. Meteors are what we see streaking across the sky. We call them meteoroids if they make it to the ground. (I hereby promise that no meteor will touch the Earth on my watch) In fact any alien object hitting Earth is a meteoroid. (Even Asgardians?) Meteorites are the detritus of meteoroid impact. There is a nifty piece on how we define what is and is not a planet, and some amazing intel on what unexpected materials asteroids and comets might have brought to the Earth over the history of our planet, and another piece on how craters are created. And did you know that there is a multi-national (as in countries not corporations) organization that was set up to watch the skies for the next big thing? These and more such nuggets make the journey with Randall worth the occasional eye-glaze.

And if you are worried about The Big One wiping us out, don’t. We will see to that ourselves long before a big rock does the job for us. The current rate of species extinction is comparable to the one that took place 250 million years ago, the Permian-Triassic extinction. In that one 90% of species were wiped out, including insects. There is always hope that we will, over a period of millions of years, figure out how to keep large floaters from making a mess of our earthly garden. With Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs Lisa Randall, by striving to gain greater understanding of how the universe works, is doing her bit to shine a light in the darkness.

Review posted – 10/30/15

Publication date – 10/27/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

NASA’s Site about the Kuiper Belt

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences presented their results on asteroids and the threats they pose in a document entitled Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies

A nice article in the June 2013 Smithsonian – Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy

An interesting set of videos with Randall on BIG thoughts

Although the interview is for a different book, Randall’s Daily Show interviewwith Jon Stewart is fun and informative re things scientific.

Ditto, as Randall is interviewed by Tavis Smiley

A nifty set of videos on the hazards presented by asteroids

The Dark Song from The Lego Movie – It’s Awesome

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The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

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He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qianlong had made to the visiting Lord Macartney in 1792—“We possess all things…I have no use for your country’s manufactures”—if he could determine what exactly prompted Qianlong to make such a claim, then he would perhaps have the basis or a truly original and world-changing work of scholarship.

Whereas other great British explorers like Livingston, Scott, Drake and Cook sailed, rode or walked into places that had not been seen by westerners before, not much anyway, and produced useful and accurate maps of the places they explored, Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham strode into places in China that had at least been visited by Europeans, but maybe not properly noticed, and created the equivalent of a map to its history. He would produce one of the monumental intellectual works of the 20th century, Science and Civilization in China,

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Volume 1

and revolutionize how the West perceived a nation that had come to be regarded as a basket case. Like Moses, Joseph Needham did not survive to see the final product of his efforts, but he knew that it would come to be, as he had dedicated his energy, genius, love for and obsession with China to fueling the engine to its final destination. There are, to date, twenty four “substantial published works” in the project, according to the Needham Research Institute, with more in process.

Of course, as a remarkable Englishman, Needham would not be complete without his share of eccentricities, peculiarities and oddities. He was a nudist for one. Those of delicate sensibility afloat on the River Cam in Cambridge knew that there was a certain section of the waterway that might feature suit-free swimmers, and when to shield their gaze. Needham might be found among the bathers. He was also a practitioner of the open marriage. It is unlikely that his wife, Dorothy, the daughter of his Cambridge mentor, was much of a sexual wanderer, but Needham was a notorious womanizer. Of course there was one woman in particular who caught his fancy, and sparked Needham’s life work. 有缘千里来相会

She was named Lu Gwei-djen, and she was Chinese, born thirty-nine years before in the city of Nanjing, and a scientist like himself. They had met at Cambridge six years earlier…In falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Joseph Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country. She taught him her language, and he now spoke, wrote, and read it with a fair degree of fluency. She had suggested that he travel to China and see for himself what a truly astonishing country it was—so different, she kept insisting, from the barbaric and enigmatic empire most westerners believed it to be.

Lu Gwei-djen was a gifted biology researcher who came to Cambridge specifically to study with Needham and his wife, also a high-level scientist. Six months in, she and Needham were an item. Dorothy put up with it.

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Lu Gewi-djen – from HCSC Foundation – Needham – from USA Today

The times were dramatic when Needham made his first visit to China in 1943. Japan occupied a considerable portion of the country. The trip took years to arrange, having to run a gauntlet of political interference. But once he arrived Needham immediately began identifying elements of contemporary Chinese civilization, technology and science, that dated back hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years, predating similar abilities in the west. He found that much of what was presumed to have originated in Europe had in fact begun in the Middle Kingdom. Needham made it his life’s work to dig into the history of all the Chinese science and technology history he could get his hands on to feed what he already knew would be his magnum opus. He travelled extensively in the non-occupied areas of China, at times barely escaping ahead of Japanese invaders.

Although he compiled a massive amount of information, the crux of his concern rested on what would come to be called The Needham Question or The Grand Question,

why…had modern science originated only in the western world? Much later on…a second question presented itself—namely why, during the previous fourteen centuries, had China been so much more successful than Europe in acquiring knowledge of natural phenomena and using it for human benefit?

Simon Winchester tracks Needham’s life from early childhood until his passing at age 95. He worked until the very end. And a remarkable life it was. His focus, of course, is on the time in which Needham acquired an interest in China and the subsequent lifetime labors. (只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针) A fair bit of ink is given to his relationship with Lu Gwei-djen, as it should be. And there is considerable reportage on Needham’s political views, and the trouble those got him into during the shameful McCarthy period of the Cold War. (一人难称百人心/众口难调)This makes for fascinating reading. Winchester also lets us in on what a pain in the neck it was for Needham, however, intrepid, to make his way around China on his investigations, in the absence of reliable transport. His life and status at Cambridge comes in for a look as well. Like the poor we will always have office politics with us. (强龙难压地头蛇 )

Joseph Needham is indeed one of the most remarkable people of the 20th century. I confess I had never before heard of him, which may say more about my educational shortcomings than Needham’s undeserved obscurity, but I will presume that there are many like me, (fewer, to be sure, on the eastern side of the pond) to whom the story of Joseph Needham will be a revelation. Simon Winchester has made a career out of writing about great accomplishments and the people responsible. (一步一个脚印儿) He has done us all a service to bring this amazing character to our attention. With the growth of China into one of the premier economic and military powers on the planet, it may not ensure a good fortune, but it would probably be a worthwhile thing to know as much as possible about its history and culture.

Publication – 2008

Review posted – 3/6/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

An interesting wiki on the Historiography of science

If you feel like getting a start on reading Needham’s life work, you might check in with the Needham Research Institute . There are many photographs available there taken by Needham on his China visits.

A few other books by Simon Winchester –
Krakatoa
Atlantic
The Map That Changed the World
The Professor and the Madman
There are plenty more Winchester books out there. I have listed only the ones I have read.

The following are the full entries for the Chinese items included in the review. I found them in the China Highlights site.

有缘千里来相会 yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì – Fate brings people together no matter how far apart they may be. This proverb points out that human relationships are decreed by Fate.

只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhǐ yào gōng fū shēn, tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn) – If you work hard enough at it, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle. This proverb encourages us to persevere in whatever we undertake. Just as the English proverb has it:”Constant drilling can wear away a stone”.

一人难称百人心/众口难调(yī rén nán chèn bǎi rén xīn / zhòng kǒu nán tiáo) – It is hard to please everyone.

强龙难压地头蛇 (qiáng lóng nán yā dìtóu shé) – Even a dragon (from the outside) finds it hard to control a snake in its old haunt. This means: Powerful outsiders can hardly afford to neglect local bullies.

一步一个脚印儿( yī bù yī gè jiǎo yìnr ): Every step leaves its print; work steadily and make solid progress.

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The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

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Stand very still. Breathe as softly as you can. See that little flicking movement? No, not over there, straight ahead, behind the bush. Keep looking. You will see it. I promise. There. Didn’t I tell you? Cool, right? Isn’t she beautiful?

One of the foundations on which the study of nature is based is to be still and watch. Yes, there is a lot more to it, but you have to find some inner quiet, clear your mental and sensory palate, stop fidgeting, and allow the images, scents, sounds and feel of the world cross your senses, settle in and register. Watching and noticing is an excellent place to start. In The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has done just that. And she was able to learn a lot without having to look very far beyond her back door in Peterborough, NH.

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The Author

Usually oak trees spread acorns over the landscape every autumn, but in 2007, in Thomas’s neck of the woods, they seemed to be on strike. Reluctant to see the local whitetails endure the particular hardship of cold plus starvation, Thomas took it upon herself to provide something that might help, corn. Deer had been visible on her land forever, but the feeding assured that there would be plenty of deer to watch.

There is probably more written about deer than any other animal. I found 1.2 million websites, 80 books in print, many more out of print and about 100 articles on deer. I really think they are the most studied mammals in the world, but nobody cares about their social lives. They care about the bacteria in their gut in winter, and things related to hunting them — but not what they really are or do. I wanted to just watch them and learn who they are.– from the Mother Nature Network interview

Thompson takes us along with her as she struggles with figuring out how to identify individual animals, and observing the dynamics of interactions among deer groups. There are nuggets of information scattered throughout the book, material that will make you smile as you add it to your accumulated knowledge of the world. Why, for example, do deer nibble and move, nibble and move, instead of chomping down a bit farther in a given patch? Why is food that is ok for deer at one time of year, useless in another? How can deer scat help you determine what direction the critter was headed? How dangerous are antlered buck battles? How can you tell a place is a deer resting spot? How have deer adapted to ways in which people hunt them?

…a useful way to look at another life-form is to assume that whatever it may be doing—chewing bark, digging a tiny hole, wrapping itself in a leaf, sending up a sprout, turning its leaves to face the sunlight—it is trying to achieve a goal that you, in your way, would also want to achieve. In fact, you can be sure of that. The closer you are taxonomically to what you are looking at, the more likely you are to recognize what it’s goals might be, and the further you are, the less likely. Either way it’s fascinating.

Thompson does not fawn solely over deer for the entirety. There is plenty of subsidiary intel here on other forest dwellers. Turkeys come in for a considerable look and you will be thankful, I guarantee it. Bobcat scat (no not a form of feline singing) on a boulder has particular significance, and is not just evidence that the kittie could not make it to the usual dumping ground in time. (see, I managed not to conjure an image of the guy below leaving a deposit in the woods) In fact there is a whole section on varieties of woodland scat that you will not want to wipe from your memory. There is a description of oak behavior, yes behavior, that will make you wonder if Tolkien’s depiction of ents might have more truth to it than most have suspected.

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Not to leave all the consideration to the critters, Thompson offers some observations on human selection and characteristics as well.

suppose we had evolved in the northern forests, rather than simply arriving there as an invasive species. We certainly wouldn’t be naked—we’d be permanently covered with dense fur—and when our pineal glands told us that the days were getting short, we’d do a lot more than simply feel gloomy—we‘d redouble our efforts to find food, and we’d start breeding so that nine months later our young would be born in the spring. Allegedly we do eat and breed a bit more in the autumn, but if we were truly a northern hemispheric species, we’d do it in grand style…The reason we don’t have thick fur and a breeding season is not because we’re superior beings, but because we evolved where such things were not needed.

She also goes into some unusual hunting rituals humans engage in, wondering if the practices in question might extend into pre-history. She refers to such learning, handed down from generation to generation, as The Old Way, ( a subject she explores in depth in her book of that title) whether it is the passing of information by ungulates or homo sap.

In fact Thomas, an anthrolopogist, as well as a naturalist, has spent considerable time in Africa, living with and studying the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari, writing about what she learned in The Harmless People, Warrior Herdsmen and The Old Way: A Story of the First People. She is best known for The Hidden Life of Dogs. She has also written about felines, in The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and their Culture

Thomas is very easy to read. You need not be concerned with getting lost in scientific jargon. She is very down to earth, and very accessible. There is a spare beauty to her prose. She has also written several novels, (Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife most prominently) so she knows how to frame and tell a story.

For most of us, city-dwellers by and large, opportunities for wildlife observation are much more limited than they are for those living so much closer to actual wilderness. But we need not be starved for information, insight, lore and wisdom about the natural world. Just as Thompson provided corn for deer to help get them from one year to another, so she has offered, in The Hidden Life of Deer, knowledge and nourishment for the mind and the soul. You will learn a lot reading this, some of it very surprising. The book has been found by many readers since its publication in 2009. Do yourself a favor and hunt down a copy, then sit somewhere where no one can see you and read it very quietly. I advise against twitching your ears.

Review posted – 9/5/14

Publication date – 2009

This review has also been posted on Goodreads.com
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

A PBS Nature Video – The Secret Life of Deer

The Quality Deer Management Association, a hunters site, yes, really has a lot of info on whitetails

A Lovely interview with the author on Mother Nature Network

A Publisher’s Weekly profile of Thomas, Rebel with a Cause

An interesting youtube vid of Thomas talking about The Old Way

There are six parts to this Daily Motion interview with Thomas. Here is a link to the first of those.

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The Bees by Laline Paull

book coverThe Bees is a powerful tale of what life might look like to a hive member. This is not your kids’ Bug’s Life, but a very grown-up, compelling drama that includes both sweetness and considerable sting. There are several elements that might make one think of Game of Thrones Drones. Corruption on high, battles of succession, sinister enemies, both in the hive and outside. Not only must all men die but winter is coming, twice. There is also a lot of religious reference here. This sits atop a marvelous, deep portrayal of a world that is very alien. And to top it off we are led through this journey by a character who, while far from perfect, is a very good egg, or was.

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Bee life cycle

Of course Flora 717 might not have been considered a wonderful egg to those around her. She was born to the Flora caste, a group responsible for, ironically, cleaning up, a sanitation caste, essentially untouchables. But this Flora is a bit different. She is larger for one, possessed of great determination, curiosity, and a capacity for speech that is mostly suppressed among her peers. Still she is different and that is not usually allowed. The police are about to remove her (Deformity is evil. Deformity is not permitted.) when a Sage intervenes. Sages are the priestess class. Their intentions however, are not entirely holy. This Sage takes Flora under her wing, and the story is on. Sometimes it is good to spare the deviants, and experiment a little. We get to see many aspects of hive life through Flora’s five eyes, but also through her six feet, which are able to interpret vibrations in the floor, and her antennae, which she uses to sense scents and for more direct communication with other bees. That Paull can make the very alien sense environment of bees understandable to those of us with only four limbs and no antennae at all (well except for our friends in intelligence) is a triumph on its own. The Hive Mind is considered for its positive and negative aspects as well.

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Laline Paull

Paull tells about the origin of the story on her web site

A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation.

Her feeling of loss is very much present here. Bees are not the longest lived creatures on the planet, and more than a few see their end here. But there is another element as well, from a recent interview posted here on Goodreads,

Becoming a mother changed me and made me stronger—but evolution is never easy. I didn’t write Flora from an intellectual perspective but in a very visceral way: Motherhood made me a more passionate person—or allowed me to express that innate side of myself much more. So perhaps that’s why Flora works as a character: There’s primal truth in her motivation. She accepts her life one way, but then a forbidden force takes possession of her. Called love.

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Religious nomenclature permeates the tale. The Queen is not only a temporal ruler, but is considered divine as well. This is helped along by her ability to produce pheromones in vast quantity that can soothe her hive family. There are sacraments in this world, a catechism, rituals, prayers, some of which will sound familiar. There are also some virgin births. And what would religion be without a little human sacrifice, or in this case bee sacrifice. It is a place in which religion is joined to politics to generate Orwellian mantras like Accept Obey Serve, Desire is Sin, Idleness is Sin, From Death comes Life Eternal, and the like. And, of course, there is some Orwellian behavior. Life is held cheaply, particularly for those not of the favored groups, and the jack-booted police that enforce the rules are definitely a buzzkill. The death penalty is more the norm than the exception, and it is often applied immediately and energetically.

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Western honey bee

Flora’s explorations of the world are entire adventures on their own, as she encounters not only adversaries like wasps, spiders and crows, but man-made hazards as well. On the other hand she experiences the longing of the flowers, and the expanded internal horizons that result from expanding one’s horizons externally. She has a particular longing of her own, which fires the engines of her determination.

The Bees is a fast-paced, engaging, invigorating tale that will have you flipping pages faster than a forager’s wings. You will come away not only with the warm feeling of having shared a remarkable journey but will find yourself eager to learn more about our buzzy brethren, well, except for Nicolas Cage. And you might even find yourself tempted to get up and do a

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Waggle Dance

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

In Paull’s site there is a photo of a Minoan palace map that informed her hive layout. Worth a look .

The May 2014 GR newsletter features a brief interview with Paull

That buzzing in your ear might be more cause for concern that you’d realized. New project aims to upload a honey bee’s brain into a flying insectobot by 2015

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Communication: From Pheromones to the Internet and Beyond by Max Swanson

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In Communications: From Pheromones to the Internet and Beyond, Max Swanson, a long-time researcher with Atomic Energy of Canada, and physics prof at the U of North Carolina, offers a wide-ranging overview of communication, from unicellular beasties to complex organisms, from humans to machines, from proximate to distant, from the physical to the abstract, from then to now and from now to the future. Along the way he looks at communication as it pertains to religion, politics, education, government and marketing. He casts an eye on self and spiritual communication as well. He has clearly given the subject a lot of thought and presents myriad ways in which communication occurs, including, but not limited to sight, touch, sound, feel, language and even ways of communication that might not seem obvious, such as DNA. There are significant and valid points raised here. One is the importance of education for females. Another is the danger of concentrating media control in too few hands. Yet another looks at the historical experience of nations that base their education systems on testing to the exclusion of all else.

I had very mixed feelings about Communication. It is unclear to me who the intended audience is. It comes across as equal parts fascinating and obvious. There are plenty of jaw-dropping items, where you are pleading for Swanson to tell you more, tucked in between sections that make one want to wonder aloud “yeah, and?” Here is one of the latter, on the relative merits of information vs misinformation.

Wild swings in the stock markets and the global economy are due in large part to panic or euphoria caused by inadvisable spin of financial news, whether good or bad. On the other hand, timely worldwide flow of information facilitates the realistic evaluation of news, the distribution of goods, the coordination of health maintenance, and timely warnings of disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.

Duh-uh.

However, as a springboard for investigation of its composite elements Communication is marvelous. Have a class of 12th graders read this and there is huge potential that each will come across something that stimulates their curiosity. They won’t so much be able to satisfy it here as be prompted to a journey that might lead somewhere exciting, even if they do that search on handheld communication devices, and have to occasionally be zapped with tasers whenever they text someone or resume that game of Angry Birds. Here is one of the fun items:

In Egypt, thousands of years before the Christian era, giant obelisks may have provided a unique and innovative long-range communication system. By striking these obelisks, priests in Luxor and other religious centers could have created resonant sounds heard many kilometers away.

If you are thinking, as I did, that this sounds like a fab idea for an action/adventure novel, sorry, it has already been taken. Damn! Maybe as an element in a video game? And another:

Most humans are capable of hearing sounds with a frequency between 20 hertz ad 20,000 hertz (cycles per second) and volume greater than 5-15 decibels. [Are decibels digital temptresses?] Hearing is best in the frequency range between 1,000 and 5,000 hertz. Some very low frequency sounds cannot be consciously heard, but are accompanied by a vague feeling of unease when in their presence. This feeling may be associated with the phenomenon of ghosts.

Seems like he buried the lead there, slipping in an item we could use a bit more on, but it is off to the next topic straight away.

I am sorry to report that much of Communication reads like a text book, and is sorely lacking in the sort of humor that someone like Mary Roach brings to science to grease the intellectual in-ports. But there are also many fun items to be found here, no question. The issue is balancing the delight of taking in the juicy bits with the not-so-exciting other elements. Bottom line for me is that I am glad I read it. I learned some new things, which is like heroin to me, and that made trudging through the rest an acceptable cost. It might be for you too.

Posted April 11, 2014

I received this book through the GR FirstReads program.

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My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

book cover Scott Stossel has a problem, anxiety. Big-time. Had it all his life. Think decades of therapy of the talk and chemical varieties. But, he has also had a successful career as a journalist, and is currently the editor of the Atlantic magazine.

Anxiety, when it’s not debilitating, can bring with it certain gifts: a heightened awareness of your environment; more sensitive social antennae; a general prudence about risk-taking; a spur toward achievement. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that the greater the anxiety, the greater the opportunity for growth. I think there’s definitely something to that—though when my anxiety is at its worst I’d trade away the opportunity for growth in exchange for the anxiety dissipating. (from the Bookpage Interview)

Just what is anxiety? What causes it? What are its effects on individuals and society? How has it been viewed historically? What might be done about it? Stossel sets out to look at these and other questions. The wrinkle here is that he uses his personal lifelong battle with anxiety as a lens through which to examine the various understandings that have been put forth about this condition and the treatments that have been tried over time. The historical and analytical elements are fascinating reading, but relating the information to his personal struggle makes Stossel’s a very human approach.

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Scott Stossel

If getting definitive answers to questions is important to you, and not getting such answers makes you uncomfortable, anxious even, you probably should pass on reading My Age of Anxiety. If, however, you enjoy the mental stimulation of seeing the history of how medical science and society at large has viewed what we, today, call “anxiety”, then this significant work should offer you the palliation you require.

So, what is anxiety? Stossel’s response reminded me of Tevye’s, in Fiddler on the Roof, to the question of why the Jewish people maintain certain traditions. “I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Stossel does not break out into song, but offers a comparable explanation, at least to begin.

If Freud himself, anxiety’s patron saint, couldn’t define the concept, how am I supposed to?

Even contemporary investigations with the highest of tech have not been able to pin it down definitively. There are even different schools of thought over where the primary cause of anxiety lies. Is it in the electromagnetic functioning of the brain, or in the swath of chemicals that also make up our biology. Charmingly, these two camps are referred to as “Sparks” and “Soups.”

Is anxiety genetically determined? There really is a thing that researchers call the Woody Allen gene.

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From Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex

Anxiety has offered fodder for cinematic investigation, both serious and satirical, an area that did not receive much attention here. But one could be forgiven for believing that Hollywood product seems to exist, in large measure, in order to instill fear in the population. book cover “Be afraid. Be very afraid.“ The release of Jaws certainly gave many an unwarranted fear of being slurped down by a mega-fishy. There is both the Hitchcockian treatment of acrophobia and Mel Brooks’ somewhat lighter take, depending on whether you prefer your anxiety high or low. And of course newspapers do all they can to flog fear as a means of pushing product. book coverThere are enough cop, medical, serial killer and zombie programs on the tube to provide plenty of fodder for nurturing our nervousness. Maybe it is the minority of us who are immune to this constant barrage of market-driven promotion of paranoia. Is it any wonder people are so afraid of so many things?

Do drugs and the ad campaigns of big pharma create more anxiety? Stossel looks into this possibility. Despite the real benefits of some of the products made by large pharmaceutical companies, maybe big pharma is something we should be frightened of.

Lest one think Stossel has written a completely dry, scientific, or at least reportorial investigation, you should know that in talking about one of his primary personal miseries, emetophobia, or fear of vomiting, he does seem to take on a bit of a Mary Roach persona while describing some very painful and embarrassing personal experiences. My scatologically-inclined inner twelve-year-old was giddy at times.

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An out of body experience

When Stossel writes of shyness and stage fright, I was whisked back to my early youth, kindergarten or first grade. A school performance. I stood at center stage and recited, “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater…” I got through the words, but by the time I walked off stage, my trousers had acquired considerable extra moisture. It got better. I had battles with anxiety over the years as an adult as well. Not nearly to the degree that Stossel did. There was a time when I was so burdened with anxiety that my armpits would become viciously inflamed. Not exactly something that might land one in a hospital, for sure. But pain-enforced arms akimbo is not a normal way to present oneself to the world this side of a workout vid. It jars when one is in a suit and tie. It does not matter what caused this somatization. No one turned me into a newt. It did get better. This pales before the travails endured by the author, nearly bolting from his own wedding out of terror that he would boot his lunch, throwing sports matches just to get off the court and stop worrying that he might toss his cookies in public. His anxieties did not make for a happy adolescence in the already terrifying world of dating. (There is plenty more. Read the book to find out just how fortunate you really are.) But I do understand at least a bit, on a very personal level, how anxiety can be physically debilitating. So the book held definite appeal. I imagine that many of us have suffered from anxiety of one sort or another, in varying intensities. It can’t hurt to learn a bit more about where this particular form (or more properly, range of forms) of misery originates.

One of the treatments Stossel looks at (and experienced himself) is a thing called exposure therapy. Basically one must confront the thing one fears most over and over until one internalizes the fact that the thing one fears will not do the damage one imagines. It is Mary Roach territory again when he writes of his own exposure therapy treatment, and its effect on those treating him. I can imagine, however that this might not be a particularly helpful approach were one’s fear something like, say, emasculation, or being hit by a car.

He writes of the fascinating connection between the brain and the stomach. Those who suffer from anxiety also have issued with control-freakishness. It was news to learn that there is even a standardized scale for measuring this. That it is called Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale does not give one great confidence in the intent of its designer.

There is a wonderful section on blushing. Those of us who are always on the lookout for Darwinian understandings of human behavior will definitely perk up at this. And speaking of Darwin, his is one of many household names Stossel cites as prolonged and acute anxiety sufferers. There is also an enlightening passage on how we get the word panic from the Greek god Pan. You will learn a bunch of nifty new words, well, probably new to you. I know a lot were new to me.

Fox News troll John Stossel is Scott’s uncle, so it is clear that there is definitely something sinister swimming about in the family gene pool. At least that particular strain does not seem to have afflicted Scott. His younger sister, Sage, an artist, not only suffers considerably from anxiety, she also just published in December a book that deals with it, Starling. Thanksgiving must be interesting at Stossel family gatherings.

I have one particular gripe about the book and it has to do with physical format. The volume I read was an ARE, so formatting may be different in the final, hard cover edition. But in the volume I read, the page count comes in at 337. No big whoop, even if it is a dense read, and it can be. But the sheer volume of footnotes at the bottom of pages is such that it felt much, much longer. (Maybe call them feetnotes?) There are pages that consist of three lines of actual primary text and what seemed vast, unending streams of subsidiary material in print that seemed to call for an electron microscope. I became almost phobic about turning the page. God knows how much more footnote was lurking there, determined to triple the time it would normally take me to completely read a page. And it should be pretty clear that one of my personal tics is a need to read all the footnotes. And they are definitely worth reading. What I wish though, is that the author had found a way to incorporate that very interesting material into the text of the book itself, at a human-friendly font-size, and let us know up front how long the book really is. It felt like a bit of a cheat to me, stuffing so much material in through that particular back door. If it is really a five or six hundred page book, fine, I’m a big boy. I can handle it. But don’t tell me it’s 337, then cram in another 200 pps of material. Grrrrr. That said, if you do not share my footnote-reading compulsion, it will be a much quicker read for you, but you will miss out on a lot of fascinating stuff. So maybe the solution here is to just tell yourself that the book is maybe 50% longer than the page number indicates and adjust your expectations accordingly.

It took a lot of work and a lot of guts for Stossel to expose his personal struggles to public view. Reading My Age of Anxiety may not do anything to remove your particular fears, phobias, neuroses or anxieties, but it may at least offer some comfort from the knowledge that one’s difficulty is unlikely to be unique, that anxiety, like death, taxes, corruption and bloody-minded stupidity has ever been with us, that one suffers in the company of some of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced, that there is likely some relief to be had chemically, and that there can be real personal and social benefit from having at least some anxiety. Unless your fears have to do with reading very informative looks at widespread human problems, works in which the reportage incorporates the personal to illuminate the universal, you might want to risk taking a peek at My Age of Anxiety. There is nothing to be afraid of.

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

NY Times article about Scott and sister Sage publishing books at the same time, about the same subject, although very differently

Bookpage interview

This was named one of Oprah’s 17 books to pick up in January

Stossel on Colbert, a fun interview.

2 Comments

January 20, 2014 · 10:37 am

Eels by James Prosek

book coverYeah I know, there are two reactions to the notion of eels. First there is fear when one thinks of large, oceanic moray eels popping up out of some hidden coral niche to snatch a chunk out of your leg as you swim by. Second is “eeewww.” This is for the slippery guys who inhabit rivers, streams and extreme restaurants. Get over it.

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James Prosek – from NPR

James Prosek’s Eels is a fascinating look at an unappreciated creature. Did you know that scads of eels migrate from freshwater streams and rivers to mid-ocean to spawn? The location of the Pacific spawning ground is still unknown, (or at least unrevealed) but they head for the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic. The author attempted to keep eels once, but their wanderlust resulted in them damaging themselves trying to escape. The urge to get back to the sea can also result in the major YouTube wet dream of giant eel balls (no, Beavis, not oversized fish nads, but masses of intertwined critters, cavorting in a movable orgy) rolling their way over dry land to get to the ocean. It is probably a good idea to step aside.

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from fishermensvoice.com

Prosek offers wonderful profiles of people for whom the eel is a major part of their lives, scientists, eelers, eco-warriers, South Sea Islanders. Ray Turner is a back-woods sort in Pennsylvania who makes a living as an eeler from a year’s worth of work and a few nights of harvest. A large part of the book looks at the significance of the eel in Maori culture. This is quite eye-opening. Think buffalo and Plains Indians. He writes also of how the Japanese regard the eel and manages to find a flight to the very remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei, mentioned to him by a few of the people he interviewed for the book. It is a place of great significance in eel legend. Eels are reputed to be able to make sounds like barking dogs and crying babies, and are ascribed magical powers beyond that. Way cool. He also looks at the activities of conservationists who are trying to spare these remarkable creatures from extinction.

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a Moray eel from howstuffworks.com – not just another pretty face

Catches of eels are plummeting worldwide, the result of dams, overfishing, and the usual human fouling of natural waterways, increasing the need for information about the eel life-cycle so that this important fish (yes, eels are fish) can be preserved.

Prosek’s book is, in short, great fun. By the time I finished I could honestly say, “I’ve been slimed,” but in a good way. This book was released in 2009. It is definitely worth your while trying to locate a copy and when you do, don’t let your chance to learn about these fascinating creatures slip away.

Review posted on GR in June 2010 – updated December 2013

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Prosek’s web site

There is a video on PBS featuring Prosek, The Mystery of Eels that is definitely worth a look, although it is refreshing to see that there is something that this renaissance man, (yeah, he plays music too, in addition to being an accomplished artist and scientist) is not great at, voice-overs. The content and visuals more than make up for Prosek’s stolid delivery.

12/3/13 – Gillian Anderson, in full eel attire, promoting conservation – must see

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature