Category Archives: Books

Insects! Outreach and Three Books (video)

From Joanne Manaster:

Joanne shares information about the University of Illinois’ outreach, BugScope and tells of a yearly event featuring insects called The Insect Fear Film Festival. Awesome! Also, three Featured Books by Sonia Dourlot (Insect Museum), Hugh Raffles (Insectopedia) and May Berenbaum (The Earwig’s Tale) All three books have chapters listed in alphabetical order, but not in the way you would imagine

How to write and publish a science book?

SCONC Presents: Writing Science: Local Authors Discuss Their Craft (an N.C. Science Festival event):

Join the Science Communicators of North Carolina as we probe the minds of local science writers to find out how they go about the process of writing a book.

How are ideas generated? What does their research process entail? How do they go about getting words down on the blank page/screen? What is the editing process like? Once the book is finished, what next?

Find out the answers to these questions and pose your own.

Panel includes:

T. Delene Beeland (blog, Twitter), author of the forthcoming The Secret World of Red Wolves.

Scott Huler (blog, Twitter), author of On the Grid (review).

Glenn Murphy, author of Why is Snot Green?

Moderated by Russ Campbell (blog, Twitter) of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Thursday, September 23, 2010 from 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM (ET) in Research Triangle Park.

Get your free ticket(s) here!

Really bad timing for me – I’ll be at the Block by Block summit on exactly the same day. I hate I will have to miss this. But you should go if you are in the area! This is bound to be awesome!

Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe – Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

From e-mail:

I hope you can join us for our next installment of Periodic Tables: Durham’s Science Cafe! Below are the details for the evening. And remember, try to come early if you want a seat and a bite to eat before we kick things off at 7pm!

——

What: Bonobo Handshake: Love and Adventure in the Congo

“A young woman follows her fiancé to war-torn Congo to study extremely endangered bonobo apes—who teach her a new truth about love and belonging.”

Author and scientist Vanessa Woods will discuss and sign copies of her new book, Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo. Like chimpanzees, bonobos are related to humans by 98.7%. But in contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male dominated societies where infanticide and lethal aggression are observed, bonobos live in highly tolerant and peaceful societies due to female dominance that maintains group cohesion and regulates tension through sexual behavior. How much of us is chimpanzee and how much is bonobo?

The Regulator Bookstore will be on hand to sell Vanessa’s book after her talk.

Who: Vanessa Woods, Author and Research Scientist at Duke University

Where: Broad Street Cafe, 1116 Broad Street, Durham

When: Tuesday, August 10th @7pm (2nd Tuesday of every month)

Parking: We understand that parking can be tough so please feel free to park at the NC School for Science and Math (catty-corner to Broad Street Cafe)

Additional Info

Books: ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Deborah Blum

Poisoner's Handbook cover.jpgIf you picked up The Poisoner’s Handbook (amazon.com) looking for a fool-proof recipe, I hope you have read the book through and realized at the end that such a thing does not exist: you’ll get busted. If they could figure it all out back in 1930s, can you imagine how much easier they can figure out a case of poisoning today, with modern sensitive techniques? And if you have read the book through, I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. Perhaps you should use your fascination with poisons to do good instead, perhaps become a forensic toxicologist?
My SciBling Deborah Blum (blog, Twitter) has done it again – written a fast-paced page-turner, full of action and intrigue, and with TONS of science in it. It reads like a detective novel. Oh, wait, it is a detective novel. Who said that an author has to invent a fictional detective, an Arsene Lupin or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or the Three Investigators? There existed in history real people just like them, including Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Charles Norris was the first Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, or at least the first one who was actually qualified for that position which, before him, was a political appointment not requiring any expertise. Norris served in this role from 1918. to 1935. and revolutionized both the position and the science of forensic medicine. Alexander Gettler was one of his first appointees, who served as New York City’s chief toxicologist until 1959.
The two of them used their prominent position to set the new high standards for the profession of a public medical examiner, and also set the new high standards for the scientific research in forensic pathology, including forensic toxicology – the study of the way poisons kill and how to detect it. They affected rules and legislation with their work, they sent clever murderers to the electric chair, and exonerated the innocents who were headed that way due to mistakes of the non-science-based courtroom battles. And in order to do that, they needed to do a lot of their own research during many years of long days and nights in the lab performing meticulous and often gruesome studies of the effects of various substances on animals, people, living and dead tissues and coming up with ever more sensitive and clever methods for detecting as small quantities of the poison as was technically possible at the time.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Deborah Blum notes that there were many other forensic scientists before, during and after the Norris-Gettner era, and many of them got mentioned in the book or are cited in the EndNotes (which I discovered only once I finished the book – I hate the way publishers do this these days!). But it is also true that Norris and Gettner were the leaders – they used their prominent position and political clout, and their meticulous research defined the high standards for the nascent discipline. In a way, the central importance and prominence of these two men worked well for the book – here we have two interesting characters to like and follow instead of a whole plethora of unfleshed names. And as each chapter focuses on one poisonous substance and one or two notorious cases of its use, it is just like following Holmes and Watson through a series of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – the two characters are the connecting thread, and they evolve throughout their lives and throughout the book, case by case.
Apart from being a history of forensic toxicology, the book has several other themes that keep recurring in each chapter, as they chronologically unfold. The book is also a history of 1920/30s New York City, and a history of technology and engineering. Carbon monoxide poisoning? That was the beginning of the car craze. Gas? Everyone cooked and heated with it at the time. Some other poisons were easily found in many over-the-counter products in stores and pharmacies.
Having just read On The Grid, I was also attuned to the discussions of infrastructure of NYC in the early 20th century. How did people transport themselves? Air pollution? Gas? Clean water? Wastewater? All sources of potentially toxic chemicals. How efficient was garbage collection? Not much….thus there were many rats. And rats needed to be controlled. And for that, there was plenty of rat poison to be bought. And rat poison can kill a human as well – inadvertently, as a method for suicide, or as a murder weapon. It is kinda fun to see some of the same infrastructure issues, like garbage disposal and pest extermination in N.Y.City, addressed from different angles in different books – this one, On The Grid, as well as Rats, another fascinating science book that covers New York City engineering, infrastructure and politics of the time. All the threads tie in together….
Another topic addressed in each chapter was Prohibition. One can certainly die of a huge overdose of ethyl alcohol normally found in drinks, but at the time when producing and selling drinks was illegal, people still drank, perhaps even more. And what did they drink? Whatever they could find on the black market – home-made concoctions brewed by unsavory types more interested in profit than the safety of their product. Instead of ethyl, those drinks were mostly made of methyl (wood) alcohol which is much more dangerous in much smaller doses. Prohibition saw a large increase in drinking-related deaths, a fact often loudly pronounced by Norris, leading to the eventual end of Prohibition. Can we apply that thinking to the War On Drugs now?
And the story of Prohibition has another element to it – the importance of regulation. An unregulated substance is potentially dangerous. By solving a number of poisoning cases, and by doing their research on the toxicity of then easily available substances, Norris and Gettner have managed to initiate regulation of a number of toxins, or even their removal from the market altogether. Some substances that were found in everything, even touted as health potions (even radioactive substances!!!) were discovered by forensic toxicologists to be deadly, and were subsequently banned or rigorously controlled. Today we have entire federal agencies dealing with regulation of dangerous chemicals, but in the early 20th century, it was the time of laissez-faire murder, suicide, suffering and death.
Finally, after I finished this fascinating book, I realized it gave me something more: an anchor, or a scaffolding, or a context, for every story about poisons I see now. Now every blog post on Deborah’s blog makes more sense – I can fit it into a body of knowledge and understanding I would not have if I have not read the book. This really goes hand in hand with the recent discussions of #futureofcontext in journalism – see The Future Of Context for starters. The idea is that news stories do not provide enough context for readers who tune into a new topic for the first time. A story that is an update on an ongoing story is not comprehensible without some context, which the news story cannot provide. So now various media organizations are experimenting with ways to provide context for people who are just tuning in. The perfect source of context for a topic is a book, especially now that every book appears to have its own website with links and news and a blog and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. The book provides context, and all these other things provide updates.
For example, reading Bonobo Handshake may not provide much more context for me about animal behavior and cognition since I already have that context, but it certainly now makes it easier for me to understand the news stories regarding conservation of great apes. And without that book I would never have sufficient background in the recent history of Congo to understand and appreciate this comment thread. ‘On The Grid’ gives me context for all news regarding infrastructure. Explaining Research is a great recent example of a book that is a great start on the topic, but which constantly reminds the reader that this field is in flux and that the book’s website contains frequent updates and additional resources. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provides fantastic context for the discussions of medical ethics and its evolution in the USA in the past several decades, which I riffed off a little bit in my latest interview.
What reading The Poisoner’s Handbook did for me is to give me enough knowledge and understanding on the topic that I can really appreciate it. I now get excited about news stories regarding poisons because I feel I understand them better. While reading Deborah Blum’s blog was interesting before, now it is more than interesting – it is exciting and I can’t wait for a new post to show up. I did not know how much I did not know. Now that I do, I want to know more. I am hungry for more knowledge, and more news, and more stories about toxins and poisons and how various strange and not so strange substances affect our bodies – where they come from, how they get in, how they hijack or disrupt our normal biochemical processes, how they kill us, and how do we figure that all out in the laboratory or in the basement of the mortuary. I hope you will feel the same once you finish reading this book. You will do that now, OK?

Books: ‘On The Grid’ by Scott Huler

grid_cover.jpgAbout a month ago, I told you about the book-reading event where Scott Huler (blog, Twitter, SIT interview) read from his latest book On The Grid (amazon.com). I read the book immediately after, but never wrote a review of my own. My event review already contained some of my thoughts about the topic, but I feel I need to say more, if nothing else in order to use this blog to alert more people about it and to tell everyone “Read This Book”.
infrastructure 001.JPGWhat I wrote last month,

“I think of myself as a reasonably curious and informed person, and I have visited at least a couple of infrastructure plants, but almost every anecdote and every little tidbit of information were new to me. Scott’s point – that we don’t know almost anything about infrastructure – was thus proven to me.”

infrastructure 003.JPG…was reinforced when I read the book itself: I don’t know anything about infrastructure. But after reading the book I can say I know a little bit, understand how much I don’t know, and realize how much more I’d like to know. I bet it was fun watching me as I was reading it, exclaiming on average five times per page “This is so cool”, and “Hey, this is neat” and “Wow, I had no idea!” and (rarely) “w00t! Here’s a tidbit I actually heard of before” and “Hey, I know where this is!” (as I lived in Raleigh for eleven years, I know the area well).
infrastructure 006.JPGA few years ago, Scott was just as ignorant about infrastructure as most of us are. But then his curiosity got better of him and he started researching. He would start at his house in Raleigh and trace all the wires and cables and pipes going in and out of the house to see where they led. Sometimes there would be a crew on his street digging into the asphalt and fixing something and he would approach them and ask questions. At other times he would figure out where the headquarters are and who to ask to talk to:
infrastructure 007.JPG

“What Scott realized during the two years of research for the book is that people in charge of infrastructure know what they are doing. When something doesn’t work well, or the system is not as up-to-date as it could be, it is not due to incompetence or ignorance, but because there is a lack of two essential ingredients: money and political will. These two factors, in turn, become available to the engineers to build and upgrade the systems, only if people are persuaded to act. And people are persuaded to act in two ways: if it becomes too costly, or if it becomes too painful to continue with the old way of doing things. It is also easier to build brand new systems for new services than it is to replace old systems that work ‘well enough’ with more more modern ways of providing the same service.”

infrastructure 008.JPGIn a sense, this book is a memoir of curiosity as Scott describes his own adventures with a hard-hat, a modern Jean Valjean sloshing his way through the Raleigh sewers, test-driving the public transportation, and passing multiple security checks in order to enter the nearby nuclear plant.
infrastructure 009.JPGBut it is more than just a story of personal awe at modern engineering. Scott weaves in the explanations of the engineering and the underlying science, explains the history and the politics of the Raleigh infrastructure, the historical evolution of technologies underlying modern infrastructure, and illustrates it by comparisons to other infrastructures: how does New York City does that, how did Philadelphia did it 50 years ago, how did London 500 years ago, how about Rome 2000 years ago?
infrastructure 014.JPG

“What is really astonishing is how well the systems work, even in USA which has fallen way behind the rest of the developed world. We are taking it for granted that the systems always work, that water and electricity and phone and sewers and garbage collection and public transportation always work. We get angry on those rare occasions when a system temporarily fails. We are, for the most part, unprepared and untrained to provide some of the services ourselves in times of outages, or to continue with normal life and work when a service fails. And we are certainly not teaching our kids the necessary skills – I can chop up wood and start a wood stove, I can use an oil heater, I know how to slaughter and render a pig, how to get water out of a well, dig a ditch, and many other skills I learned as a child (and working around horses) – yet I am not teaching any of that to my own kids. They see it as irrelevant to the modern world and they have a point – chance they will ever need to employ such skills is negligible.”

infrastructure 015.JPGAnd this brings me to the point where I start musing about stuff that the book leaves out. As I was reading, I was constantly hungry for more. I wanted more comparisons with other cities and countries and how they solved particular problems. I wanted more history. I wanted more science. I wanted more about political angles. But then, when I finished, I realized that a book I was hungry for would be a 10-tome encyclopedic monograph and a complete flop. It is good that Scott has self-control and self-discipline as a writer to know exactly what to include and what to leave out. He provides an excellent Bibliography at the end for everyone who is interested in pursuing a particular interest further. His book’s homepage is a repository for some really cool links – just click on the infrastructure you are interested in (note that “Communications” is under construction, as it is in the real world – it is undergoing a revolution as we speak so it is hard to collect a list of ‘definitive’ resources – those are yet to be written):
OnTheGrid homepage.jpg
infrastructure 022.JPGWhat many readers will likely notice as they go through the book is that there is very little about the environmental impacts of various technologies used to ensure that cities function and citizens have all their needs met. And I think this was a good strategy. If Scott included this information, many readers and critics would focus entirely on the environmental bits (already available in so many other books, articles and blogs) and completely miss what the book is all about – the ingenuity needed to keep billions of people living in some kind of semblance of normal life and the interconnectedness that infrastructure imposes on the society, even on those who would want not to be interconnected:
infrastructure 027.JPG

“There are people who advocate for moving “off the grid” and living a self-sufficient existence. But, as Scott discovered, they are fooling themselves. Both the process of moving off the grid and the subsequent life off the grid are still heavily dependent on the grid, on various infrastructure systems that make such a move and such a life possible, at least in the developed world.”

infrastructure 031.JPGMy guess is, if there’s anyone out there who could possibly not like this book, it will be die-hard libertarians who fantasize about being self-sufficient in this over-populated, inter-connected world.
infrastructure 032.JPGAt several places in the book, Scott tries to define what infrastructure is. It is a network that provides a service to everyone. It has some kind of control center, a collection center or distribution center. It has a number of peripheral stations and nodes. And there are some kinds of channels that connect the central place to the outside stations and those stations to the final users – every household in town. There is also a lot of redundancy built into the system, e.g., if a water main breaks somewhere, you will still get your water but it will come to you via other pipes in surrounding streets, with zero interruption to your service.
infrastructure 025.JPGScott covers surveying of land, stormwater, freshwater, wastewater, roads, power, solid waste, communications (phone, broadcast media, internet) and transportation (e.g., public transportation, trains, airplanes). These are the kinds of things that are traditionally thought of as ‘infrastructure’. But aren’t there other such systems? I’d think security has the same center-spokes model of organization as well: police stations and sub-stations (distribution centers) that can send cops out wherever needed (distribution channels), with potential criminals brought to court (processing centers) and if found guilty placed in prison (collection center). Similarly with fire-departments. Ambulances are just the most peripheral tentacles of the health-care infrastructure. The local-county-state-federal political system is also a kind of infrastructure. So is the military. So is the postal system. So is the food industry and distribution.
infrastructure 018.JPGThinking about all of these other potential examples of infrastructure made me realize how many services that require complex infrastructure undergo cycles of centralization and decentralization. For transportation, everyone needed to have a horse. Later, it was centralized into ship, railroad, bus and airline infrastructures. But that was counteracted by the popularity of individually owned cars. And of course taxis were there all along. And as each decade and each country has its own slight moves towards or away from centralization, in the end a balance is struck in which both modes operate.
infrastructure 020.JPGYou raised your own chickens. Then you bought them from mega-farms. Now many, but not most citizens, are raising their own chickens again. It is not feasible – not enough square miles on the planet – for everyone to raise chickens any more. But having everyone fed factory chicken is not palatable to many, either. Thus, a new, uneasy balance.
infrastructure 011.JPGNowhere is this seen more obviously today as in Communications infrastructure. We are in the middle of a big decentralization movement, away from broadcast (radio, TV and yes, newspaper industry infrastructure with its printing presses, distribution centers and trucks) infrastructure that marked about half of 20th century, and forward into something more resembling the media ecosystem of the most of human history – everyone is both a sender and a receiver, except that instead of writing letters or assembling at a pub every evening, we can do this online. But internet is itself an infrastructure – a series of tubes network of cables and it is essential not to allow any centralized corporation to have any power over what passes through those cables and who gets to send and receive stuff this way.
infrastructure 013.JPGFinally, as I was reading the book I was often wishing to see photographs of places or drawings of the engineering systems he describes. As good as Scott is at putting it in words, there were times when I really wanted to actually see how something looks like. And there were times when what I really wanted was something even more interactive, perhaps an online visualization of an infrastructure system that allows me to change parameters (e.g., amount of rainfall per minute) and see how that effects some output (e.g., rate of clearing water off the streets, or speed at which it is rushing through the pipes, or how it affects the water level of the receiving river). That kind of stuff would make this really come to life to me.
infrastructure 030.JPGPerhaps “On The Grid” will have an iPad edition in the future in which the text of the book is just a beginning of the journey – links to other sources (e,g., solutions around the globe, historical sources), to images, videos, interactive visualizations and, why not, real games. After all, it is right here in Raleigh that IBM is designing a game that allows one to plan and build modern infrastructure – CityOne. These two should talk to each other and make something magnificent like that.
Cross-posted from Science In The Triangle.
The small images are thumbnails – click on each to see the whole picture, full-size.

Welcome the newest SciBlings! And more.

Now this is big: ScienceBlogs Welcomes the World’s Top Scientific Institutions to Our Network:

We here at ScienceBlogs are pleased to announce that beginning today, we will be helping to spark the next generation of research communications by introducing new blogs to our network from the world’s top scientific institutions. The initial list includes: CERN, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), SETI Institute, Weizmann Institute of Science, and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The first two of those are already live – check out the Weizmann Wave and Brookhaven Bits & Bytes. Go and say Hello. The others will go live soon. And if your institution is interested in doing something like this, contact the Overlords over on Page 3.14.
Also, the ScienceBlogs Book Club is back! The first book discussed right now is ‘Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service’ by Mark Pendergrast, who is himself participating in the book club. Later, who knows, perhaps some books from this list?

Kids Read Science and Teens Read Science – Summer Science Reading Contest 2010

Joanne Manaster of Joanne Loves Science has just announced a science book reading contest for young readers (and movie-makers): Kids Read Science and Teens Read Science. Watch the introductory video:

Check out the contest instructions for details:

The contest is simple–just do what I do quite often. Read a non-fiction science book and make a video! Oh, you have to be a kid or teen. Just making that clear. Age 8-12 can enter Kids Read Science and ages 13-18 can join Teens Read Science. We will be thrilled to see you all be creative and articulate. Tell us what you learned in less than five minutes.
Anyone anywhere in the world can submit an entry. We have prizes, too! But, for now, with our limited legal knowledge, we can only distribute those in the US. Don’t worry, we’re going to try to figure something out for everybody else.

You can start with my previous post to get ideas about readings (at least for teens), and feel free to add ideas in the comments here and on Joanne’s blog.