Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives. In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species. He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow. When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix. In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed. Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist. There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief. Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for pages when he could just get to the punchline.
As these things go, not too bad. Consider it everything you ever wanted to know about the hydrological cycle (there are similar books on coffee, cod, oil, and so forth). Well written and organized loosely from the most ancient rains, those that fell on a recently cooled planet, forward toward contemporary discussions of floods, droughts, dams, rivers, crops, and the livelihoods of humans at rain’s mercy. The book is remarkable for its breadth and inclusiveness, and strongest when Cynthia Barnett’s stories are longest, but the final result is like so many unending raindrops. A drowning in more facts about rain than anyone really wishes to endure.
Matthew Hart purports to answer all your questions about gold. Why does it have value? How is it mined? What is the historical significance of gold? Why should anyone own any? After dispensing with theft from contemporary South African mines and the history of gold rather briefly, the book devolves into two rather dense sections. First, is a jargon-rich explanation, best understood by fellow economists, for the gold standard that backed much of the world’s currencies until the 1970s. Second, is a tedious description of how a few ounces of gold are chemically extracted from tons of useless rock. Interspersed are some not very compelling travelogues to some of the world’s most interesting gold mines. Though it is presented only as a passing thought the inevitable conclusion is that gold’s value is currently no different than the value of a famous painting. It is worth only as much as someone who collects such things is willing to pay.
Every once in a long while you read a book by an author you recognize is much, much smarter than the rest of us. Christopher Hitchens is one of those. Eula Biss is another. I picked up On Immunity thinking I was going to learn about New Age parents thinking they are protecting their children by forgoing inoculations. And yes the book does dig into the science of how vaccinations succeed and how pseudoscience survives on the internet forever. The study purporting to demonstrate that some vaccinations could lead to autism, for example, has been so thoroughly discredited as to exist only in a world inhabited by believers in alien abductions. It would be a mistake, however to think On Immunity is only an account of germs and antibodies. Rather, it is a work of philosophy covering the nature of who we have become as overprotective parents, men and women so concerned about perceived threats to our children, and our desires to keep them immortal like Achilles, that we are in practice creating national and international health hazards that will be borne by the poor and underserved in the healthcare system. Our desire to remain undead forever is an invitation for Biss to discuss the inherent fear of parenting and the curse of Dracula who never died, and like a bacterial infection survived on the blood of others.
Well, someone has to tell it like it is and Kolbert lays it out there as clearly as anyone possibly can. She travels the world, to visit rocks containing the fossil record of the first five great disruptions in evolution when species, genera, and families disappeared with virtual instantaneity. Then she keeps traveling to demonstrate that, again geologically speaking, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction in the last two billion years. This time, the era called the Anthropocene, will appear in the rock record, millions of years from now, as the period when one species, Homo sapiens, destroyed an inordinate number of species around the globe. Humans have changed the climate, introduced devastating invasive species from one part of the planet to another, demolished habitats of every variety, and polluted land and sea to such an extent that only the heartiest rats, cockroaches, and bacteria are likely to survive. Philosophically, it is interesting to ponder that perhaps the most sentient species in earth’s history is aware enough to understand the malice it is causing, but not smart enough to do anything about it. In the end, the book, well written as it is, was too depressing to finish.
Prior to Columbus’s blundering into the Caribbean, there was negligible interchange of plants, animals, or humans between continents. Shortly thereafter the onset of large-scale globalization was underway. Spain brought silver, Indians, new vegetables, and Spaniards from South America to the Philippines and China. Potatoes, tobacco, and corn from the Americasbecame main staples in Europe and Africa. The forced importation of Africans to the New World became one of the largest human transplantations in history. At many times, and in most places, the number of Africans in the Americas outnumbered whites by more than four to one, making the real history of the Americas a story of the interplay of Africans and Indians, rather than just a story of developing European supremacy. After reading 1493 and Mann’s first book, 1491, I’m more convinced than ever that the history I was taught — white, male, Eurocentric — overlooked 90 percent of what was important.
Summary: Everybody poops. Nobody talks about it. It’s a big problem everywhere. In the First World disposing of sewage consumes too much water and generates unimaginable quantities of industrially and pharmaceutically contaminated waste. In the Second World, sewage isn’t treated; just dumped in the local river. In developing countries, 2.6 billion people crap in the open in close proximity to their drinking water. Poop is one of those topics nobody wants to talk, write, or read about, but the author, Rose George, makes it seem like the most important environmental issue on the planet. She runs out of steam toward the end of the book. There’s a little too much focus on India and not enough on Africa, but those are minor quibbles. Kudos to her for discussing the unmentionable.
One of those intriguing books about an animal I knew surprisingly little of and a part of the world, eastern Siberia, about which I was completely ignorant. The Tiger is the tale of a singular animal at the end of the 20th century that searches far and wide for one hunter that has done him wrong so he can eat him. In addition to learning how tigers can distinguish and track one human from another for the purpose of avenging past injustices it was equally fascinating to discover eastern Siberia. Here in the forest with winter temperatures routinely forty degrees below zero live both tigers and people abandoned following the demise of the Soviet Union. Survival in the forest is not much different in the year 2000 than it must have been 300 years prior: hunting, gathering wild mushrooms and pine nuts, log huts, and vodka.
This is a half-century story of Marion Stone, born in the late 1950s as the twin son of a British physician and a nun (oops). Both his parents vanish at his birth leaving him to be raised in a medical outpost in Addis Ababa by two Indian doctors, where he learns medicine first hand before becoming a surgeon, like his father, later in life. The characters are lovingly drawn and Ethiopian poverty and politics provide the continuing backdrop, the most interesting character in the book is medicine. I’ve never cared a great deal about the science and art of medicine, but Verghese, a practicing surgeon, lays it out in such graphic detail I was riveted by the myriad details, diagnoses, and decisions trauma surgeons must master.
About the three days before Mount Vesuvius blew its top and decimated the city of Pompeii as seen through the eyes of a conscientious aquarius in charge of trying to figure out why the Roman aqueducts have stopped flowing. An interesting novel since you know how it is going to end, but watching how the Romans begin to uncover the signs of the impending explosion is fascinating.