Archive for the 'Book Reviews' category

Book Review: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Apr 17 2013 Published by under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Did you know that hydrogen sulfide, molecule for molecule, is as lethal as cyanide? The only difference is, one of them's in your farts (at far too low of a concentration to harm you, except psychologically).

Did you ever wonder if you could eat (or do drugs) with your butt?

Did you ever wonder what cat food tastes like? And why that should matter to humans? And why dogs (and rats, and others) eat their own poop?

And have you ever thought, really THOUGHT, about your own saliva?

I bet you're thinking about it now.

It's weird, isn't it.

But no saliva, no rectal storage, and no potentially lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide will stop the intrepid Mary Roach, as she embarks upon her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.


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Book Thoughts: My Beloved Brontosaurus

Apr 03 2013 Published by under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Disclaimer: Brian Switek and I are good friends (I have impersonated a squid for him on occasion). In fact we are such good friends that his latest book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, is dedicated to me (I am SO SO flattered and honored. I cried when I saw it, cause BRONTY IS THE BEST). So I don't feel that I can really give a REVIEW of the book, as I'm by default a little biased here (spoiler: you should read it). But I loved the book, and I want to talk about why I liked it (even aside from the dedication!). So this isn't a review, per se. It's my thoughts on the book. Take that as you will. 🙂


As Brian noted in his dedication to his new book "My Beloved Brontosaurs: on the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs" (Due out April 16th!), I really loved old Brontosaurus. I still do. I know it doesn't exist, Brontosaurus is actually Apatosaurus, but Brontosaurus remains as a fondness in my memory from my childhood.

But then again, so do ALL the dinosaurs I remember. I love them, in all their cold-blooded slow reptile-ness. I love the idea of the prehistoric world being full of warm swamps with the reverberating stomping of slow giants. I liked the Jurassic Park version, fast, wily, but still ultimately strange and reptilian.

And I really didn't want to believe otherwise. I saw all the changes going on to dinosaurs. Warm blooded. Then feathered (I begin to suspect that dinosaurs tasted like chicken), then brightly colored and social and good moms. The whole deal. And I just didn't really identify with it. Those weren't MY dinosaurs. Those were some other dinosaurs. I couldn't really reconcile the two in my mind, and I didn't really WANT to.

So I have to say that I picked up Brian's book excited about new dino science, but pretty unwilling to be convinced. New science about dinosaurs could not possibly make dinosaurs as cool as the old ones I remembered.

...but I was wrong.

Brian's book (I guess I should say "Switek's book", but these are my thoughts, not a proper review, and I'll dang call him Brian if I want to) reminds us all of those dinosaur days. That dinosaur phase many of us went through, our wide-eyed wonder. He taps in to that old wonder, the amazement at these giants that once walked the planet, and he makes it BETTER.

These aren't your childhood dinosaurs, but their new complexity and the many things we still don't know about them make them an enticing subject. We often think of dinosaurs as the kind of thing you grow out of. Yeah, I was into that when I was five, but now I'm in to new, adult things like accounting and optogenetics. But by seeing these new aspects of dinosaurs, from how they may have communicated to how the heck they could have mated (big spiky tails get in the WAY), you get that sense of wonder all over again. Dinosaurs are for children and adults alike.

Yes, we used to think dinosaurs were slow and cold...but isn't it that much more AMAZING to think of them as fast, bright, and potentially fluffy? We used to think that hadrosaurs used the huge crests on their heads to maybe breathe underwater, but isn't it even cooler to imagine them used for sound, a huge, deep bass chorus honking across prehistoric plains? And while reptilian, lizard-like dinosaurs are nice and threatening on the movie screen, doesn't it make them that much more exciting to imagine them moving fast, cocking their head at you, birdlike, at the top of a set of hollow and perforated bones as light as air?

To show us these new dinosaurs made from old bones, Brian takes us on a tour of some of his favorite dinosaur haunts, from the hills of Montana (where the paleontologist runs up against one of his more implacable nemeses...the cow), to the beautiful arid deserts of Arches National Park. The more I read, the more desperate I was to get out there myself, to see the dinosaur tracks stomped forever in stone, to see bones that crumble right out of the hills. I know that digging bones can be hot, sweaty, and tedious work, but when it culminates in even something as small as a dinosaur tooth, I feel like my life at the bench pales in comparison.

Brian covers many aspects of dinosaur life, from how they may have stood and moved (T. Rex was a clapper, not a slapper!), to how they may have mated. He talks about paleontology with humor (his wife's comment about how dinosaur mating would have been easier if the vagina was on the side "like a gas tank", is my absolute favorite) and with an amused eye at some of the foibles of the scientists involved (the race to find the biggest dino just got absurd), but you can also feel his deep love of his subject, and the places where his precious dinosaurs are found. From what we used to think, to what we think now, dinosaurs get more complex, and more fascinating, as you see them through the eyes of someone truly obsessed.

And in the end: I was convinced. As much as I used to want to see a Brontosaurus, sloshing slow, majestic, and somewhat bovinely through the mud, I think I want even more to see a light, speedy, group of Allosauruses (Allosaurae?), racing like birds over the hills. They aren't the dinosaurs we remember, but thanks to writers like Brian, they are more fascinating than ever.


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Book Review: This Is Improbable!

Dec 12 2012 Published by under Book Reviews

Have you ever wondered how the ideal bottle of liquid would glug when you tried to pour it out? How the sound of a potato chip's crunch changes how crispy you think it is? How stuffing your bra could influence your hitchhiking skills?

What, you never have? Well, fear not! Because no matter what weird you've wondered, there's probably a scientist who has, as well. And where scientists wonder...scientists do SCIENCE.

And some of the craziest of this science has been collected over the years by the incomparable Marc Abrahams, he of the fabulous hat and the wonderful yearly IgNobel Prizes, which celebrates the odd, outre, and often awesome in science every year. Sci got to cover the Ignobel Prizes this year and last year, and Marc is always quick to send me the latest in weird science for your Friday Amusement.  So I was very pleased to receive Marc's latest book on all the wild, weird, and improbable "This is Improbable: Cheese string theory, magnetic chickens, and other WTF Research".

The goal of the Ignobel Prizes, and of Marc's Annals of Improbable Research, is to show off research that makes you laugh...but also makes you THINK. And the research presented in this collection definitely makes you laugh. It may also make you think, even if that thought is just "why the heck would ANYONE study this".

Examples abound. Open this book to any page. Do you know why older style washing machines tended to "walk", or move across the floor? Someone studied that. Did you know some tree dwelling lizards actually tend to fall out of trees? They do, and someone's studied that. Did you know that someone has studied the measurements of Playboy centerfolds over time, whether dogs know, or need to know, calculus, and how people space themselves on the beach? People have studied all of these, and Abrahams has collected them into a hilarious pile of pithy science.

This book (perhaps appropriately, given some of the subject material) is ideal for keeping, say, in the bathroom (speaking of which, has anyone studied the preferred types of bathroom reading material and what percentage of people prefer to read on the loo? I bet Marc Abrahams knows this), where any time you like, you can grab this book, open it to any page, and find out how often adults skip or about the physics of falling cats (no cats were harmed).

Sure, why WOULD people care about the physics of falling cats, or how lions respond to recordings of other lions. But if you think a little harder, you begin to realize that a lot of this strange stuff really does contain useful knowledge. Knowing how people behave in a laundromat can tell you a lot about people in groups of strangers. Finding out how people REALLY feel about chocolate can help people sell chocolate, and determine things about taste and experience. As for a study on "blood and tissue spatter associated with chainsaw dismemberment"...well I'll leave that to the imagination.

But whatever your question, no matter how improbable, you might find the answer to it in this book collection. Or if you don't, you'll definitely find the answers to a lot of other questions you never thought to ask. It's a fun collection with a lot of great cocktail party conversation material, and Abrahams covers it all with a dry wit that let's the hilarity of the work speak for itself. Abrahams has always been one of my weird science gurus, and I hope that some day I too achieve his mastery of the weird science genre. But until I do, I'm going to be pouring over this book, and I definitely recommend that you do, too.


Conflict of interest note: I got this book for free, and Marc is a friend of mine.

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Books I've read this year, edition...4?

Dec 29 2011 Published by under Book Reviews

Wow. 4 years now of posting lists of my read books, in my eternal quest to become a well read (and hopefully well educated, though I suppose those don't always go together) person. At this point, I mostly post them to a) keep track of what I've read, cause I forget, and b) get recommendations from other people. I don't always get to take them, but I DO love recommendations!

So here we go. I got up to 37 books this year. I always aim for 30, so I'm feeling pretty proud.

And does anyone have and recommendations for next year?

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Friday Weird Science Book Review: Dirty Minds by Kayt Sukel

Dec 09 2011 Published by under Book Reviews, Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

Society for Neuroscience meeting. Kayt and I hung out and I think she’s fantastic fun. Also, she gave me a tshirt.)

My ears perked up when I first heard that there was a book coming out called “Dirty Minds”. I mean, it’s about neurobiology. And it’s about SEX. And the author had an ORGASM in an fMRI. For SCIENCE. Totally up my alley, this stuff.

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Book Review: The Science of Kissing

Feb 07 2011 Published by under Book Reviews

Pucker up!


Sci was very excited to get a copy of Sheril's first solo book effort, "The Science of Kissing: What our lips are telling us". I've always enjoyed Sheril's writing and her fun take on life in general, and so I was excited to get the book. But I admit I was also a little worried. After all, it's the science of KISSING. What if it was...well, like a Cosmo article or something? Of course I know Sheril better than that, but there was a deep dark worry in the back of my mind.

(Is this a kissing book?)

"The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips are Telling Us" by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

(Disclaimer: I did give some advice and information for the book, and got the book for free. Sadly, I didn't get to participate in any of the surveys contained therein. Rats.)
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Book Review: The Calculus Diaries

Jan 20 2011 Published by under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Sci's not going to lie. I HATED math. Ok, Algebra I could handle, but Calculus? Let's just say my GPA wasn't high for a very good reason. And that reason was Calculus. Remembering the dusty lecture room with the plain white furniture and the feeling of fear every time I hear the words "Derivative" or "Integral" is not a pretty thing. But when I heard that Jennifer Oullette had a book out about Calculus...I thought I'd give it another try. I've always liked Jennifer's blog, Cocktail Party Physics, and I thought, if ANYONE was going to get me to feel ok about Calculus, she was probably it.

I got my copy in the mail (SIGNED! <3) and settled in to read. Well, "settling in" is a misnomer. I have basically no time to read anymore. So I read all my books for review (and other books) while cross-training at the gym. This means I only get in 1-3 hours of reading a week (the rest of the workout time is running and it's very hard to read, you run in to people and trees and stuff). But doing reading while on the stairmaster and elliptical and bike turned out to be really useful for this book, particularly in Chapter 7. Jennifer, throughout Chapter 7, I quite literally felt your pain. 🙂

(Available at Amazon)

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