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Showing posts from April, 2006

The Medical Detective – Sandra Hempel ****

With the terrible disease cholera at its heart, this is anything but a pleasant book to read – but that doesn’t stop it being horribly fascinating. Sandra Hempel has a gift for taking the reader into the heart of period medicine. Primarily a biography of John Snow, the man who cracked the mechanism for cholera’s spread, The Medical Detective also gives us a good deal of (sometimes graphic) description of the impact of cholera, an in-depth consideration of the UK political reaction to the cholera outbreaks, and a good feeling for the working environment that Snow would be familiar with. Although the US title, The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump, is more effective in bringing out the medical Sherlock Holmes mystery aspect of the story, the Broad Street incident, of which more later, is very much the climax of the book, not cropping up until over half way through. Perhaps the most shattering aspect of Hempel’s story is the description of the Tooting child farm. One of the places ch…

Sleepfaring – Jim Horne ****

Sleep is something we’re all familiar with (even if we don’t get as much as we should), but few of us really understand it. Sleeping can seem a waste of time, or a dangerous risk while driving a car, but Jim Horne’s Sleepfaring takes the reader on a journey through the science of sleep that will explain many of sleep’s mysteries and give a better understanding of why it’s so important. Horne begins with the magnificently titled first chapter “petunias, one-eyed ducks and roly poly mice”, and goes on to explore the nature of sleep and how stimulants effect our sleeping, sleep’s effect on the body, the dangers of sleep deprivation, the different phases of sleep and how the brain operates during them, and the whole range of sleep peculiarities from long and short sleepers to sleepwalkers, insomnia and snoring. There’s a special chapter on children’s sleep for worried parents, and even a little “lark or owl” test to see when your best functional times are. Horne doesn’t spend too much tim…

Lonesome George – Henry Nicholls ****

Pinta Island in the Galapagos has a particularly famous inhabitant – the giant tortoise, Lonesome George, the only known survivor of the Pinta variant of that species. (Technically he isn’t an inhabitant, as he has been moved to a sanctuary on another part of the archipelago, but Pinta is where he came from. PS Also even more technically now George has sadly died.) George inevitably features regularly in the press, thanks to the combination of being a striking animal, a Darwinian icon and a very isolated creature, but does he warrant a whole book? In a word, yes. Henry Nicholls cleverly makes George a central focus that he keeps returning to, but is able to use the tortoise as a springboard to examine everything from Darwin’s voyages to threats to the Galapagos from incoming, non-native wildlife, eco-tourists and the action of illegal sea cucumber fishers (who have threatened to kidnap George, or worse, in the past). Some might find the description of the attempt to get George interes…

Sex, Drugs & DNA – Michael Stebbins ****

“Science’s taboos confronted,” shouts the subtitle, and that’s a fair summary of Michael Stebbins’ thought-provoking and readable book, though perhaps it should be “biological and medical science’s taboos”, because the hard sciences don’t get much coverage, not entirely surprising as Stebbins is a geneticist. The first section of the book is a fascinating look at the reality of working in science, taking a fictional character through a typical career, and emphasizing how difficult it is to be a working scientist – a useful background to the rest of the book, which is largely about the inability of politicians (and to some extent the general public) to deal with science. Stebbins largely puts this down to ignorance, in part the fault of science education, which we’ll come back to in a moment. His book is a real indictment of US policy. It reads like a rather more moderate, but still very passionate scientific equivalent of a Michael Moore book. Chances are, if you enjoy reading Moore (…