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

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…