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Showing posts from March, 2008

The Surgeons – Charles R. Morris ****

Seeing a still-warm human heart, beating just minutes ago, sliced up takes some getting used to. For journalist Charles Morris as he observes a heart transplant, this is just another shock in his year-long stay with a team of top heart surgeons at a New York hospital. His admiration for the medics is clear. Their skill, training and concentration have saved thousands of lives. And yet there is something eerie about this book, a hint of a horror movie. The physicians perform near miracles as they work on patients suspended between life and death by machines and clever tricks. But the cultural value of the heart is such that, fleetingly, there is the impression that surgeons are removing more than just flesh. Morris’ descriptions convey the urgency and precision of heat surgery. He also reveals the contrasts: the delicate manipulation of tiny vessels around the heart during a by-pass operation and the sheer physical effort required to saw through the chest bone and later ratchet the ri…

Proust and the Squid – Maryanne Wolf ***

There’s no doubt this is an eye-catching title, though it does seem a touch pretentious until you realize that Maryanne Wolf is pulling together Proust as someone who described his first experience of reading, and the squid which has given us a fair number of insights into the operation of the brain, due to its enormous and hence easily accessible neurons. The premise of the book is appealing. Reading has transformed the human over the thousands of years, yet it’s not a ‘natural’ activity of the brain. So what is going on in our heads when we read? Of itself this is not really the premise of a full book but a good article – what was needed to make it more, was the history of science, context and people involved in our understanding of reading. Where Wolf does this we get some excellent highlights. For instance, the revelation for those not into Ancient Greek history that Socrates came down firmly against reading, feeling it would damage the oral tradition – because words in a book can…

The Book of Numbers – Peter J. Bentley ***

It’s good to see someone taking a different approach to adult popular science – and that’s certainly the case here. Peter Bentley’s book is big and glossy, packed with colour images. It has a look of quality media about it. Even the way the chapters are numbered is different – so it grabs the attention straight away. The text is a fairly straightforward tack through the history of numbers. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of number, but uses that as a springboard to take in a wide range of interesting topics. So, for example, the first chapter after the introduction is nominally about zero, and certainly covers it, but also goes into Roman numerals (and the difficulty of doing arithmetic without zeroes), counting and speaking numbers and the calendar. Although each chapter is hung on a numerical subject, they have a good selection of people to give the content context, pulling us through history at a brisk pace. In fact so strong is the people orientation that the the bibliogr…