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Archive for the ‘Science writing’ Category

04book "Contagious: Why Things Catch On" by Jonah Berger.We are ending the week with this sobering view of technology from Connie of the library’s Outreach Services Division.

I was watching a TV show called Blacklist when the main character started talking about “Big Data” and how someone with the right skills can find out just about anything about anybody and track them. I had only a vague idea what this meant.

What is “Big Data” and why should we care? I turned to the library for answers.

The authors of Big Data interpret this to mean processing vast amounts of stored data very quickly in a way that can’t be done on a smaller scale. Algorithms applied to this data have a predictive capability that will “change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments and more.”

This book develops that concept in a very understandable way with interesting examples of how our world had already changed by the large amount of data stored.

A positive example of the way big data has already helped consumers is Farecast, which predicts when air fare will be cheapest to buy. And future ways big data may benefit humanity is by predicting where outbreaks of disease will occur.

The negative implications of the predictive quality of “Big Data” are thought provoking (think of the movie Minority Report). Not only does everything we do on the Internet never go away, but that information can be analyzed over and over again for different purposes without our knowledge or consent. Even if the data is anonymized, it can still be traced back to a single individual!

The authors state that the amount of data will continue to grow along with our ability to process it. It is “the dark side of big data” that I found most alarming – more surveillance of our lives, less protection of privacy, and loss of anonymity. I found myself marking sections in the book and going back to re-read it. It also sparked a lot of discussion in my book group. Technology is a part of all our lives whether we love it or hate it and this book was a fascinating peek into our future.

Check the WRL catalog for Big Data

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hotzone

Can you imagine what it’s like to die from Ebola? Do you know what filoviruses like Ebola and a sister virus, Marburg, can do to a body? If you read The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, you’ll have a vivid idea. The images will stay with you for a very long time, and you’ll have a good understanding of the horror that people in West Africa are going through right now. In a blurb, Stephen King wrote that the first chapter is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.” I couldn’t agree more.

Preston brings his superb descriptive skills to this non-fiction book, part of his Dark Biology series. “Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.” If you don’t want to read more like that, you may want to avoid this book and stick with the description of Ebola on the WHO website, “…fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools)….”

The Hot Zone was published in 1995 and was a #1 bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list. It is now back on some non-fiction bestseller lists, as fears may be warranted that the outbreak in West Africa is out of control; the disease has spread to thousands of people and through at least five countries.

Last month, two U. S. aid workers in Liberia who contracted Ebola were brought back to the U. S. for treatment. Everyone involved understood that Dr. Kent Brantley and his colleague Nancy Writebol were infected with Ebola, and they were “transported with appropriate infection control procedures in place to prevent the disease from being transmitted to others.” Each was transported using an Aeromedical Biological Containment System, “a sort of framed tent made of thick, clear plastic with a negative-pressure, HEPA-filtered air supply designed to keep the [airplane] cabin clear of infections.” The two were taken to the isolation unit at Emory University Hospital where patients are sealed off from anyone not wearing protective gear. Both eventually recovered.

But this wasn’t the first time the Ebola virus was in a host in the United States. The last known time, the subject of this book, was in 1989 when the virus was found in the Reston [Virginia] Primate Quarantine Unit, a now-closed building that housed research monkeys. These monkeys were imported from the Philippines. At first, no one knew why the monkeys were getting very sick and dying. The staff knew something was horribly wrong, so the on-call veterinarian, Dan Dalgard, contacted experts at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, about an hour away. The virologist at USAMRIID, Peter Jahrling, “was surprised and annoyed when, the next day, a few bits of frozen meat from Monkey O53 arrived at the Institute, brought by courier. What annoyed him was the fact that the bits of meat were wrapped in aluminum foil, like pieces of leftover hot dog. … [T]he ice around [the monkey meat] was tinged with red and had begun to melt and drip.” If either party had suspected a filovirus was in play, strict isolation precautions would have been used, but they weren’t. Anyone who had any contact with the monkeys or samples—those who fed the monkeys and cleaned the cages, the veterinarians, the courier—could have been infected with the virus.

In striking detail, Preston describes the process of, and the people involved in, the diagnosis and the eventual disposition of the 450 monkeys housed in the building. Once you start reading, you will not want to put the book down.

There are other sections in The Hot Zone besides “The Monkey House.” Part 1, “The Shadow of Mount Elgon,” describes the 1980 infection and death of a Marburg virus patient, called Charles Monet in the book, a Frenchman who lived in Kenya. He and a friend took a New Year’s Day trip to nearby Kitum Cave. Preston describes the beauty of the African land and shows how interesting the cave—in a bat-filled, petrified rain forest—must have been. About a week after the cave exploration, Monet got a headache. He spiked a fever, became nauseated, and his personality changed. I will leave it to the reader to read how his transformation continues; the text is absolutely not for the faint of heart.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hot Zone

WRL also owns The Hot Zone as an ebook.

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NativeAmericanGardeningNative American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods was first published in 1917 as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation and has been reprinted in numerous editions (and with slightly varying titles) in the following hundred years. This is not surprising because Buffalobird-Woman’s comments, interpretations and knowledge of organic gardening are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.

I originally searched for this book because I had read that it was a great way to learn about organic gardening methods but I found myself fascinated by Buffalobird-Woman’s strong personality as she talked about the history of her tribe and the lives of northern Native Americans. Buffalobird-Woman, or Maxi’diwiac, was born around 1839, two years after smallpox nearly completely wiped out her tribe of Hidatsas. When she was interviewed by anthropolgist Gilbert L. Wilson in 1912, she had never learned to speak English, so her memories were translated by her son Edward Goodbird or Tsaka’kasakicand. Despite the passage of time and the distancing effect of her words being translated and transcribed by at least two other people her personal voice comes through. Even if she would have considered a wink and a nudge too bold, I can picture a twinkle in her eye as she describes the best way to fold a skin for cushioning on a hard wooden platform or talks about the cheekiness of boys as they try to steal corn or chat up girls. She is opinionated, pointing out that food preserved a different way than that used in her childhood is dirty.

The book works well for my intention of studying old-fashioned agriculture as practiced before mechanization. It turns out that Buffalobird-Woman weeded grass exactly the way I do, but worked much harder for much longer hours. She describes the entire agricultural practice from clearing the land through weeding and guarding the growing crops to harvesting and how to preserve food. She also includes recipes of the main things they made from their crops, but they mostly sound quite bland and uninteresting. Look for lots of low tech, practical ideas like spoons made from stems of squash leaves. I learned some surprising things, including that plants I thought of as South American, like maize, pumpkins, squashes, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco, were cultivated by Indians centuries before Columbus. Also that Buffalobird-Woman practiced selective breeding of sunflowers by choosing the largest heads to save the seeds from to plant next year.

The book is illustrated with the originally published diagrams and line drawings, many redrawn from sketches by Buffalobird-Woman’s son.

Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods is a great choice for readers of the difficult but inspiring lives of real women like Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth or Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also has lots of practical information for readers interesting on authentic old-fashioned horticultural techniques such as Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene.

Check the WRL catalog for Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods

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StuffMattersCoverHave you ever wondered why, despite putting one in your mouth every day, you don’t taste your spoon? I had never considered cutlery’s marvelous properties that mean it is simultaneously malleable in production, slow to corrode and unreactive in our acidic mouths.  In fact, I had never considered the properties of the millions of unregarded everyday objects that we live in, drive on, sit on, eat and use every moment of our lives.  That is where scientist Mark Miodownik comes in with this wonderful book about material science. It sounds like a dry topic and I would never have guessed that such a book could be fun, but it entertains enormously as it informs. Remember that “everything is made from something” but even Mark Miodownik  couldn’t cover everything, so he has limited himself to ten substances and written a chapter named after an intrinsic quality of each, so “Trusted” for paper and “Fundamental” for concrete.

My favorite chapter has to be the one about chocolate, which is of course “The most deliciously engineered material on earth.” Beware, though: you won’t be able to read about the “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavors” without getting an urge for a Little Something.  ( I will admit that I had to partake and “Flood [my] senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of [my] brain.”). If chocolate is not your thing you can read Stuff Matters for the explanation of why the sky is blue on page 98 and how this relates to the “Marvelous” substance  aerogel, which “is like holding a piece of the sky”.

Stuff Matters is a great book that I recommend for everyone. It is accessible enough for middle school and high school science classes, with lots for the students to learn: “The definition of the temperature of a material is, in fact, the degree to which the atoms in it are jiggling around.”  It is very readable for everyone while also being accurate, up-to-date science written by a scientist. Try it if you liked the fascinating nonfiction of The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, or the intersection of science, history and society in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. You should also read it if you have ever been in a concrete building or wrapped a gift in paper that is strong, colorful and creasable.

Check the WRL catalog for Stuff Matters.

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SouthernHerbGrowingI have tried gardening on several continents with many climates and soil types. I soon learned that a plant that grows well in one place may get resentful and sulk — or outright die— in another. That is why gardening books that address local conditions are spectacularly useful. Here in southeastern Virginia we are well served by Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. When I was starting to grow herbs I was looking for a book about a particular type of plant rather than tightly focused on one place, and Southern Herb Growing has turned out to be a wonderful resource to help me with our hot and humid conditions.

The author Madalene Hill was  the national president of the Herb Society of America in the 1980s and her expertise shines through. The first part of the book is called “A Herbal Primer” and covers getting started with sections on soil, mulch and propagation. A large part of it is given over to design ideas including historical knot gardens and theme gardens. The before and after photos can be a little discouraging because the full, tangled cottage-garden look that I crave may take five years to grow. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my two inch tall sprigs of rosemary to become bushes! And for those readers who can only dream of the space to grow a proper garden, the book includes container gardening (which herbs are well suited to).

Around half the book is the “Growing Guide” with hundreds of herbs listed alphabetically with advice for growing them in the hot, humid South, the herbs’ historical uses and significance, and their modern culinary and medicinal uses. Each listing has the scientific genus and species names, as well as alternate names, so from from Acanthus to Yarrow you should be able to find almost any rare or common herb you are interested in.

Southern Herb Growing is a great book for all gardeners, especially if you want prosaic advice poetically put such as “Basils go home to their fathers at the first sign of cold nights in the fall.” It includes hundreds of beautiful photographs of herb gardens growing throughout the South, so try it whether you are able to immediately use their advice to improve your current garden or look at the lovely pictures and dream…

Check the WRL catalog for Southern Herb Growing.

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VegetableGardeningIf you are able to make the trip to Colonial Williamsburg (and do pop in and visit us at the Williamsburg Library if you do!) you will notice the beautiful gardens. Like everything in Colonial Williamsburg, they strive to make the gardens authentic to colonial times, which means lots of cottage vegetable gardens grown in old-fashioned organic ways. Whether you can visit us or not Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way is a great book for both gardeners and history buffs.

For gardeners Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way offers a wealth of practical advice and techniques, as the author points out, “many gardening tasks have spanned the centuries relatively unchanged”. Coaxing food from the earth has always required the same patience, diligence and skill.

The historically minded can learn about the past of vegetables, for example did you know that “The onion and its relatives–leeks, shallots, garlic, and chives–are among the most ancient and important vegetables known to humankind”? More practically for a modern gardener, it lists varieties of seeds used in 18th-century Virginia and if they are now unobtainable, it lists Heirloom substitutes. To learn how to make their gardens authentic, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation turned to gardening books written hundreds of years ago like Philip Miller’s The Gardener’s Dictionary from the 1750s. Information found in these works had to be adapted to suit local conditions, such as the heat in Virginia summers.

Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way is filled with stunning crisp photographs, both decorative images of bountiful garden produce and many showing gardening techniques. As a bonus, spot the colonial Williamsburg staff in their costumes as they work in the gardens – terribly hot in the summer in coastal Virginia’s hot and humid climate!

This book is an obvious choice for gardeners, especially those interested in organic vegetable production. It will also fascinate history buffs with its wealth of information about how people lived and grew their own food over two hundred years ago. If you are a local resident be sure to pop into the library and check out our signed copy.

Check the WRL catalog for Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way.

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Poisoners HandbookScience isn’t just esoteric stuff done in a distant lab by detached and isolated scientists, rather it has everyday and real-life implications for us all. And in the case of The Poisoner’s Handbook, real death implications as well. In a time of numerous CSI television programs we blithely imagine that a forensics expert glances around a crime scene, swirls something in a test tube, and twenty minutes later announces that the butler did it, who then confesses to being a serial killer. This makes good TV but real forensics is much slower, less certain and more work. Forensics is also a lot newer than you might imagine. A hundred years ago in New York, arguably the world’s premier city, the police and medical staff  often had very little idea of what was killing people. Accidental poisoning was common because poisons were easy to acquire and almost impossible to detect in a body. Cyanide was common in cleaning supplies and pest control, with unsurprisingly fatal results! Poison was also an excellent (or more accurately dreadful) way to murder people because it was very hard to prove what caused death.

The subtitle of this book: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York sounds glamorous, but the book paints a portrait of a scary world where ignorance ruled, followed closely by corruption and hubris. The corruption of New York during prohibition was ranged against the dedication of scientists and doctors, notably Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, the courageous and brilliant real-life heroes of our story.

Author Deborah Blum says she wanted to be a chemist until she set her hair on fire with a Bunsen burner. Her father was a scientist and mother had a collection of murder mysteries, so she wanted to combine them for a nonfiction scientific Agatha Christie and she succeeded remarkably well. Try The Poisoner’s Handbook for nonfiction with the characterization and suspense of a novel. It is a fascinating portrait of the historical intersection between science and society, likeThe Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Bear in mind, this is not for the squeamish, as forensics are described in detail and poisoning and its aftermath are painted as so common that it is surprising that anyone survived at all.

PBS recognized the dramatic potential in this great book and made a documentary that was released in February, 2014. It is a great companion to the book with historic photographs of New York as well as our heroes Norris and Gettler.

Check the WRL catalog for The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Check the WRL catalog for the new documentary based on the book The Poisoner’s Handbook.

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