Skip to main content

Wormwood Forest – Mary Mycio ****

This is a rare and enjoyable combination of a natural history book with a personal travel tale – yet strangely a lot of the science in the book (and there is a fair amount) is physics. The reason is simple – Mary Mycio takes us on a deeply surprising tour of the flora and fauna of the fallout zone from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Mycio is an American with a Ukrainian family, so makes an ideal reporter for this mission – and she proves a worthy proponent of the sort of travel writing that throws in little personal observations along the way. This wasn’t just a two week visit and a hastily scrawled book, though, it’s a long term observation of different parts of the area devastated by the disaster at the nuclear power plant, mostly in Ukraine, though venturing for one chapter into Belarus.
It would have been nice if she could have spent a little longer in Belarus. Belarus is traditionally supposed to have suffered the worst of the contamination, and though Mycio questions the statistics (apparently no one knows where they came from, nor is there any evidence backing them up), it certainly has suffered the worst impact in areas like thyroid cancer in the population. But the limited view into Belarus doesn’t undermine the fascination of the Ukrainian experience.
Perhaps most surprising to the reader is the sheer abundance of wildlife and the very limited visual impact on the plant life. Rather than being a blasted wasteland, much of the abandoned territory teems with wild animals – even bear, beaver, lynx and bison that rarely survive in Europe. Apart from some distortion in trees, particularly pine, whose sticky coatings tended to hang onto radioactive dust, there is little obvious mutation. No monster creatures, or fish with three eyes as those familiar with the nuclear plant in the Simpsons might expect. In fact mutation among surviving animals seems rare – apparently the most common effect is for animals to die, and those that do survive are less attractive for breeding, so mutants haven’t transformed the biological landscape.
Those used to post-apocalyptic landscapes from fiction may also be surprised that rats and cockroaches haven’t taken over. In fact rodents have a bigger tendency to die off than the larger animals, and cockroaches are apparently not very good at resisting radiation.
The message isn’t all is rosy – not in the least – and Mycio sometimes expresses very human concerns about what she is being exposed to – but it equally is not one of total devastation. There is contamination, and the influence of the metaphorical wormwood in the book’s title (a reference to the Bible’s book of Revelation) is ever present – but thanks to the absence of normal human activity, the exclusion zone has become an area of thriving natural life that is beautifully brought to life in Mycio’s book.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…