Non-fiction


Understanding Genes: Might be tough reading for some, and too easy for others

Understanding Genes by Kostas Kampourakis 

Understanding Genes (2021), by Kostas Kampourakis, sits in a sometimes-awkward position betwixt and between a popular science book and a textbook. As such, lay readers looking for simple, smooth, easy-to-follow explanations may want to look elsewhere or be prepared to struggle and/or skim. Those with some background in biology (beyond their high school/early college courses) will fare better.

The intent of the book is a caution against genetic essentialism or fatalism and against the over-simplification, over-aggrandization, and over-simplification of the role genes play in human development generally, but especially (and mostly) with regard to disease. Here’s where the betwixt and between is a bit awkward, because while those who read about genetics only via the newspaper or online/TV news might be subjected to such ... Read More

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next

12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson

In 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next (2021), Jeanette Winterson offers up a dozen essays on Artificial Intelligence divided into four sections: “How we got here” (a dip into the history of computing), “What’s Your Superpower” (a philosophical/religious change in vision of matter), “Sex and Other Stories” (AI’s potential impact on love and sex), and “The Future” (what will change and what might not with the advent of AI). The essays are generally interesting and well written; there’s really not a “bad” one in the bunch. They do, however, still range somewhat in impact; in her introduction Winterson notes her “aim is modest,” and some of the essays, admittedly, don’t exceed that relatively humble goal. Read More

All of the Marvels: He read all of Marvel so you don’t have to

All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told by Douglas Wolk

I have to confess that I went into Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told  (2021) with a certain set of expectations, leading to some early disappointment as I read. But once I realized that my expectations were askew, and then eventually (admittedly a bit grudgingly at first) set them aside, I was able to settle in and enjoy Wolk’s work for what it was as opposed to being annoyed by what it was not. And what it was turned out to be pretty good.

Wolk’s book is based on an incredibly stupid idea. And if that sounds harsh, well, it’s only what Wolk himself says about his decision to read all 27,000-plus issues Marvel has put out since 1961, what he labels “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created.” As he says, about the foolhardines... Read More

The Icepick Surgeon: An intriguing rogue’s gallery of scientific criminals

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean 

Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.

~ Albert Einstein

Sam Kean is my favorite pop science author, ever since I read Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us in 2017. Kean has an engaging voice, a solid understanding of science, and a talent for telling stories, making complex subjects both intelligible and interesting to non-scientific readers (tellingly, he studied both physics and English literature). In his latest book, The Icepick Surgeon (2021), Kean turns his attention to the many ways in which science has been twisted to si... Read More

Spacecraft: Not exactly what it says on the tin

Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

I’m sure there is an audience for Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft (2021), one of the OBJECT LESSONS series titles. Unfortunately, I wasn’t it. I’m also thinking that based on the title, a number of people might find themselves in my position, a problem perhaps more of expectations than substance.

The OBJECT LESSONS, which I’ve generally been a big fan of, “start from a specific inspiration ... and from there develop original insights and novel lessons about the object in question.” And there lies the expectations problem because from the title, one would imagine the inspiration is, well, spacecraft. And at least at the start, it seems to be the case, as Morton offers up his youthful love of spacecrafts, his clear enduring enthusiasm, an insightful distinction between spaceships and space... Read More

The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars

The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars by Simon Morden

Simon Morden’s The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars (2021) is a detailed look at the history of Mars’ geology, and there lies both its appeal and, for some, perhaps, its lack of appeal. As fascinating as much of the book is, I confess it sometimes got a little too deep into the weeds (or the rock formations) for my own preferences, though having “too much information” is hardly a major indictment for a non-fiction work. And certainly the questions about how much water Mars had and when/for how long are fascinating, as is their connection to the possibility of life on the supposedly “dead” planet.

Morden begins, well, at the beginning. Or technically, if we’re talking about Mars, before the beginning, starting instead with the formation of the solar system and then explaining how the various planets, including Mar... Read More

Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution

Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution by Elsa Panciroli

Let’s face it. When it comes to discussion and portrayal of ancient/extinct life in modern culture, dinosaurs rule. They rumble, lumber, sprint, pounce, trumpet, and roar across our screens and pages, across bedspreads and pajamas. Their names trip merrily across the tongues of children as they reel off Latinate terminology and eras like an auctioneer at a livestock sale. The “Rex” in T-rex may as well refer to the King of the Lizard’s place in our collective minds as much to its role as an apex predator of its time.

Pity then the poor early mammals, who can’t help but be overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by their massive cousins. Well, no more. Paleontologist Elsa Panciroli speaks for the mammals! And luckily for us, she does so in fantastic fashion. In sharp, concise, vivid prose, she’s here to tell us to forget everything we... Read More

How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch: In Search of the Recipe for Our Universe

How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch: In Search of the Recipe for Our Universe by Harry Cliff

Harry Cliff takes the title for his wonderful non-fiction work, How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch (2021), from the TV series Cosmos, the original one narrated by Carl Sagan, not the most recent Neil DeGrasse Tyson version (you should watch both, btw). Early on in his book, Cliff recounts how in one of the episodes Sagan “turns to the camera and with a twinkle in his eye says, ‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’” Well, in the 40 years since Cosmos, humans have managed to figure out a few more ingredients and a few more steps in the recipe, and Cliff is here — with his own stylistic twinkle — to explain it to those of us who aren’t astrophysicists, particle physicists, theoretical phys-, well, let’s just say those of ... Read More

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space by Martin Elvis

Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space (2021), by Martin Elvis, is a thorough and wonderfully detailed exploration not of asteroids as objects (which he does do to some extent), but of the possibility of our interacting with them in order to a) prevent them from killing us off as one did (maybe) to the dinosaurs, b) exploit them for resources, and c) use them as a stepping stone for further exploitation of space. If you thought the idea of asteroid mining belongs only in the realm of science fiction, Elvis will (probably) convince you otherwise.

Elvis opens up with the required concise overview of just what asteroids are: what their composition is, the different types, where they are found, etc. He then divides the book into three sections: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. Each broad cat... Read More

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an always informative and often fascinating look at the (mostly) hidden world of fungi. There’s a lot more to them than those shitakes you’re adding to your stir-fry and Sheldrake makes for an enthusiastic tour guide to all that lies beyond the edible mushroom (though he touches on those too).

Sheldrake begins with truffles (he goes on a truffle hunt with a couple of dogs and their trainer) and uses this early part to introduce us to the basics of fungal life and their development on Earth. Like the entirety of the book, this section is filled with choice details (a 2 to 8000-yr-old fungus in Oregon taking up ten square k... Read More

A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe

A Short History of Humanity by Johannesburg Krause & Thomas Trappe, translated by Caroline Waight

A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe (2021) is, as one might expect from the title, a surprisingly concise volume covering a lot of ground. It is also, thanks to the combined efforts of its co-authors — Johannesburg Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology; and Thomas Trappe, a science journalist — an authoritative, informative, accessible, and engaging work of non-fiction.

The focus of the book is archaeogenetics, a recent field that uses newly created technology and new discoveries to “decode ancient genomes, some of which are hundreds of thousands of years old … uncovering not only the genetic profiles of the dead, but also how their genes spread across Europe … [and] sift[ing] out DNA from bacteria that cause deadly disease.”

... Read More

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human by Jeremy DeSilva

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human (2021), by Jeremy DeSilva, is an eminently readable non-fiction work. I read through it in as single sitting, propelled forward by DeSilva’s prose and enthusiasm, and I was captivated throughout, as well as ending up much better informed about our species’ evolution and bipedalism (along with learning why I’ve ended up with so many sprained ankles, inflamed Achilles, bad knees, and a bad back).

DeSilva is a paleoanthropologist, but more than that, he’s an expert in the foot. More than that, he’s an expert on the ankle. If that sounds an absurdly narrow focus, I’ll let him explain it:
We are trained this way [hyper specialization] because paleoanthropology is a science of fragments. In six weeks at a fossil site, we may find a couple of hominin teeth, and if we are lucky, a hom... Read More

Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe

Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe by Paul Sen

At some point in your schooling you learned the Laws of Thermodynamics. And then, at some point shortly thereafter (or at least, shortly after the test on them), you promptly forgot them. And even if you later in life you kept up with reading about science, well, there was always something sexier to read about: black holes, new particles, rovers zipping around on Mars. But in Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe (2021), Paul Sen is here to argue thermodynamics deserves both your attention and your respect, seeing as how it lies at the foundation of just about all our technological advancement. And darn if he doesn’t make the case.

On the one hand, the Laws (Sen really focuses mainly on the first two), are pretty simple to formulate: energy can neve... Read More

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive

Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive by Carl Zimmer

In the past year alone, humans have landed multiple devices on Mars, retrieved samples from the Moon and not one but two asteroids, delved ever deeper into the Earth, and shattered records for the recovery of DNA from ever-older specimens. Meanwhile, plans are being hatched to zip a helicopter around Titan to examine its pools of liquid hydrocarbons, fly a probe through the geysers of Enceladus to collect samples, scoop surface ice off Europa, and use the next generation of space telescope to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets light-years away. All in the search for life.

Given all that time, effort, and money, one could be forgiven for assuming that we know what we’re looking for. But, as Carl Zimmer makes explicitly clear in his newest popular science work, Life’s Edge: Searching for What It Means to be Alive (2021), that’s ... Read More

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves

The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves by Arik Kershenbaum

Usually, when one thinks about “universal laws,” the first disciplines that come to mind are mathematics and physics. Pi, or the law of gravity, for instance. But in The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves, Arik Kershenbaum makes the case for “universal laws of biology.” And then further argues that said laws, which we can formulate based on our experiences and observations here on Earth, can be extrapolated to consideration of just what sort of alien life we may encounter out there in the vast reaches of the universe. And methodical and logical as Kershenbaum is in making his case, he never loses touch with the sheer wonder at its core, making for an utterly enjoyable and absorbing read.

At the center of Kershenbaum’s c... Read More

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time

First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time by Emma Chapman

In First Light (2021), Emma Chapman covers the earliest eras of the universe’s existence, particularly focusing on what astronomers, due to their lack of information, call the “Dark Ages,” from about 380,000 years to one billion years after the Big Bang occurred. Even more specifically, her interest lies with the creation of the first stars and the current attempt to find out more about them.

Despite the focus, Chapman manages to bring in a host of other astronomical discoveries/investigations: the Cosmic Microwave background, inflation, dark matter, space telescopes, radio astronomy, Fast Radio Bursts, black holes, the Great Oxygenation Event, and others. She also goes on a variety of non-astronomical tangents involving King Tut’s tomb and pigeons (yes, pigeons).

Chapman does an excellent job explaining some compli... Read More

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Wonder Women and Bad Girls: Superheroine and Supervillainess Archetypes in Popular Media (2020), by Valerie Estelle Frankel, pretty much lays it all out in the title. Starting in the earliest days of comic books and progressing through the decades to the present, Frankel explores a boatload of characters, the famous and expected (Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Black Widow, Storm, Catwoman) and the lesser known and unexpected (Rulah Jungle Goddess, Pow-Girl, Veda the Cobra Woman). The breadth is a definite strength of the book, though I found myself wanting more depth, especially as when it was there it was insightful.

After a brief introduction, Frankel first moves chronologically through “The Classic Super Eras,” discussing Sheena, The Wasp, the Powerpuff Girls, and Captain Marvel, amongst others. Then the sections ar... Read More

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present

Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present by Chris Gosden

Chris Gosden takes on a lot in Magic: A History: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (2020) — a history of magic through time and space, skipping across millennia and the continents. Though “history” might be a tad misleading, in that Gosden includes our current age in his survey and then makes a call for magic to, if not “return” (he would argue it never left), to at least reclaim its equal position beside its younger siblings in what he calls the triple helix of magic, religion, and science. Such an ambitious project in terms of scale necessarily makes some sacrifice when it comes to specificity, and one might wish for a more focused exploration of cultural magic or find fault with some generalizations, but there’s certainly merit in the exploration despite the pitfalls, and Gosden offers u... Read More

Batman: 100 Greatest Moments: Fun reference with a lot of illustrations

Batman: 100 Greatest Moments by Robert Greenberger

Batman: 100 Greatest Moments (2019), by Robert Greenberger, like his Flash: 100 Greatest Moments which I previously reviewed (and will borrow some of here due to the similarities) is a browser’s reference book that offers up a comic reader’s cornucopia of illustrations, something one always hopes for in this sort of book. As the title says, it’s a look at an (obviously subjective) list of highlights from the near-century the classic character has been around. While some fans might quibble here and there, the list as a whole is most likely going to find general consensus.

As noted, while one can read it cover to cover, it’s more a browsing kind of book. I say that because it doesn’t go in chronological order, nor does it go into a deep di... Read More

Flash: 100 Greatest Moments: Fun, fully-illustrated reference

Flash: 100 Greatest Moments by Robert Greenberger

Flash: 100 Greatest Moments (2020), by Robert Greenberger, is a browser’s reference book that doesn’t stint on illustrations, always a plus for this sort of subject.

As the title says, it’s a look at a (obviously subjective) list of highlights from the eight or so decades the character has been around.

While some fans might quibble here and there, the list as a whole is most likely going to find general consensus.

As noted, while one can read it cover to cover, it’s more a browsing kind of book. I say that because it doesn’t go in chronological order, nor does it go into a deep dive in any particular area.

So it’s not meant to be read as an analysis, say, of the character’s changes over time. One picks up on those changes while reading, but as the entries shift around in time, it’s not a unified... Read More

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

If your view of a Neanderthal is a sloped-head, grunting, not-so-bright guy hunched against blowing snow while he tracks a mammoth, unaware of his impending extinction and eventual supplantation by his far-smarter and much smugger cousins (that would be us), it’s time to update that image. And archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has just the method of doing so: her fascinating, detailed, and vivid recreation of our ancestor: Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art (2020).

For the longest time Neanderthals were seen as a failed species: brutish, dull, dumb, mute, violent creatures just a step above gorillas. That view started to change somewhat about twenty years thanks to new discoveries and some new methodology. But as Sykes does an excellent job showing, newer technologies have exploded our concepts of just who Neanderthals w... Read More

The Voyages of Star Trek: Nothing new or surprising

The Voyages of Star Trek by K.M. Heath & A.S. Carlisle

The Voyages of Star Trek: A Mirror on American Society through Time (2020), by K.M. Heath and A.S. Carlisle, explores how the various Trek incarnations — TV shows, movies, comics — mirrored (or not) the culture of the time, beginning with the original series (TOS) and ending with Discovery (Picard was released too late and is only mentioned as existing). The book grew out of an undergraduate anthropology course, and you can see some of that in their explanation of their methods (taking random “snapshots” of shows, for instance, to assess the prevalence, or lack thereof, of non-white or women characters), but the target is the popular audience. Their main claim, as they put it, is that “Star Trek has survived across five decades in the face of rapid cultural change because it adapts to the times while staying ... Read More

Meteorite: How Stones from Outer Space Made Our World

Meteorite: How Stones from Outer Space Made Our World by Tim Gregory

Meteorite: The Stones from Outer Space That Made Our World (2020), by Tim Gregory, does what the best popular science books do — uses a vibrant, engaging and distinctive voice to both broadly and deeply inform the lay reader without dumbing down the science down too much while placing it in historical context. Check, check, and check. I already can’t wait for what Gregory turns to in his next non-fiction work.

The title tells you all you need to know about the subject matter. This isn’t a “space” book; it’s all, and almost solely, about, meteorites: how they’re found, where they come from, how they impacted (literally and figuratively) the Earth, what they can tell us about our world, other planets, and the solar system’s creation. As tightly focused as it is, though, Gregory still makes room for some effectively brief digressions into more genera... Read More

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene

In 2013, science journalist Kate Greene, along with five others, spent four months on Mars. Well, OK, it was four months on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawaii as part of NASA’s Hi-SEAS, a Mars simulation designed to test various aspects of an actual Mars mission: the effects of long-term isolation on a small group, how interpersonal relations can be maintained, the role of food on morale, sleep habits, etc. In Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth (2020), Greene conveys her experiences during the simulation via a series of essays, all of which range well beyond her small geodesic dome.

Several strands run through the collection. One, obviously, is her time preparing for and then living through her simulation experience. Several other highly personal ones are the life and... Read More

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque

In the very beginning of The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers (2020), Emily Levesque notes that “of the 7.5 billion people on our planet, fewer than fifty thousand are professional astronomers.” As the title implies, and as Levesque explains toward the end of her book, the number is perhaps more likely to shrink rather than rise. Luckily for us, Levesque is one of that select group, and so is able to fill the pages in between beginning and end with a number of entertaining stories about her own experiences, as well as those of her colleagues, along with giving readers tours of some of the best known and most effective telescopes used by today’s (and yesterday’s) astronomers.

I’ll be honest. Early on, while I was enjoying The Last Star... Read More