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.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…