At first glance, The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt seems like it will be a true crime style book about a highly coveted, ornamental trophy fish. The Asian arowana, or the “dragon fish”, is a modern phenomenon in the world of aquarium enthusiasts, prized for its rarity and dazzling colors (red, gold, and green). Baby Asian arowana sell for a few thousand dollars, while prime adult specimens can sell for upwards of $150,000. On the surface, Voigt presents the history and current events surrounding this fish, focusing on those that depict the obsession arowana lovers as well as the miasma of half-truths and danger that surrounds the Asian arowana. Stories of fish farmers or sellers being robbed at gunpoint multiple times or of judges at expos refusing to be responsible for arowana judging for fear of their safety/life are the norm. But, woven throughout these fantastical tales is an important discussion about our effect on the environment and animals — how much are we to blame and what is the best course of action to correct these wrong-doings?
Blood Matters by Masha Gessen
Blood Matters by Masha Gessen is what I imagine you would get if you were to immerse yourself in the inner monologue of a fact-obsessed individual’s decision-making process. The book opens with Gessen learning their mother has died of breast cancer, followed by a jump in time to Gessen getting a positive BRCA1 mutation test result. These two events set the tone for the book in which Gessen examines through the past and present lens how genetics, and our knowledge of our own genetics, has shaped how we view ourselves, the world, and our connections to each other. In doing so, Gessen lends a perspective not often seen in journalistic or scientific writing — the Jewish one. As readers, we get to learn about scientific concepts in the frame of Jewish history and anecdotes, as well as how these concepts and the ideologies born from them have reverberated through history. For me, Gessen’s need to know all the facts before making a life-changing medical decision was extremely relatable, and I think many others will find it easy to empathize with Gessen’s experience(s).
War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz
An unusually large whale stranding event in the Bahamas on March 15, 2000, set into motion a clash between environmental activists and the US Navy. War of the Whales, part detective and part history novel, by Joshua Horwitz covers every nuance of this battle, while also providing some really cool marine animals facts throughout. As someone who toyed with becoming a marine biologist, until realizing that a fear of open water and studying marine animals don’t really mix, this book was right up my alley. Right off the bat, you get to learn that beaked whales are the only predator that regularly dive one mile deep; with one dive even being recorded at two miles deep for just over two hours. Even if you don’t have a lot of background knowledge on these topics, this book is super easy to read, largely due to Horwitz’s writing style. War of the Whales skillfully avoids being a dry listing of facts thanks to its well-written and compelling narrative that spans across a decade or so of back-and-forth between activists and the US Navy, along with brief ‘flashbacks’ to give the historical context that led up to the current events. So, for anyone who is even mildly interested in the ocean or the interplay between ocean conservation and military policy/practices, this book a great choice.
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
If you’re someone who loves music, is a musician, and/or just really likes to learn about the brain, then I highly recommend that you read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I originally chose this book because I love music to the point where I probably spend about 75% of my day with music playing in the background, and I wanted to learn more about how the brain processes music. That being said, I learned far more than I expected, and I was consistently blown away by how complex the brain is and the idiosyncratic ways it manages to function in spite of damage or deterioration. For a scientific field that didn’t really take hold until the 1980s, the amount of information that the neuroscience of music has uncovered is already impressive. Oliver Sacks is probably one of the more well-known science writers, and for good reason. He continually brings a poetic writing style to his books that grabs the imagination of the reader. Once he reels you in with that, he keeps your attention with how he writes about his patients and other medical anecdotes; always blending traditional observation with touches of personal experiences and empathy.
Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre
Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is the perfect book if you’re looking for something written in a sarcastic and blunt voice, while still teaching you about how mainstream media distorts scientific facts. While this book may be most useful for those not as deeply entrenched in the science world, as a scientist I still learned a lot about the history behind media presentation of science and evidence-based medicine. From the opening, Goldacre sets up the structure of his book; he clearly outlines the anecdotes he will mention and how they all build upon each other to explain the cultural and psychological influences that drive the pervasive misrepresentation of good science and the peddling of pseudoscience. He also sets the foundation for how he plans to teach readers how to conduct basic scientific reasoning/thinking on their own so they can pass judgment confidently on pseudoscience in the media. What seems like a monumental task has been neatly broken down into manageable/approachable sections. Continue reading…
Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Admittedly, I picked up Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz a few years ago because of the cover. I thought this book was going to be about a doctor in the 1800s and the crazy cases he saw and the surgeries he performed on people with serious deformities. But what I got instead was a book that was dedicated to showcasing Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s revolutionary thinking and beliefs when it came to patient care and medical student teaching. In the mid-1800s, Philadelphia may have been a rapidly-growing, modern city, but it was also an incredibly dangerous place. During this time, asthma, a broken bone, or a rotten tooth could just as easily kill you as yellow fever, cholera, or smallpox. Amidst all of this, Philadelphia was also the city with one of the oldest and most renowned medical schools in the country – the University of Pennsylvania. However, compared to what we expect of medical school graduates these days, very little was required of students in those days. Students often graduated with as little as a year or two of schooling, and essentially no practical, hands-on experience with patients. It should come as no surprise that patients were treated simply as cases, with little attachment or care shown to them by doctors. It was not a good time to fall ill. Continue reading…
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
If you’re the type of person who is into true crime documentaries or procedural/detective TV shows, then The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is the book for you. This book is part history lesson and part step-by-step breakdown and tracking of the cholera epidemic that hit London in 1854, which killed about 700 people within a 250-foot radius in less than 2 weeks. Johnson doesn’t begin the book by dropping us right into the onset of the outbreak. Rather, he starts by vividly describing all of the jobs and people that were required to maintain Victorian London’s version of a waste management/recycling system. You begin to get a sense of the precarious balance that was present during this time between the booming population growth and the resulting waste removal problem. As with any economy, when there is a need for a service, especially when it’s an undesirable one, the cost of that service goes up and people decide to find a way to get around the need for it. In the case of London, their solution to the ever-increasing accumulation and removal of human waste was to just dump it into the river. Most of us as modern readers can easily predict how this would not end well, but as Johnson details in this book, there were many beliefs in place during the 1850s that prevented this realization and inevitably led to the cholera outbreak.
The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment by Jessica Wapner
Whereas my last review was for a book focused more on the individuals and retelling of an important historical period, this next book seamlessly blends the stories of the individuals and researchers with that of the science they were involved in. The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment by Jessica Wapner tells a detailed story that spans from the discovery of a DNA mutation to the creation and implementation of a therapy to treat individuals afflicted with the cancer caused by said mutation. Wapner paints a very vivid scene of one individual who was diagnosed with the cancer, a type of leukemia, going in for a check-up following treatment with the therapy that could save his life. As a scientist who is used to working with blood samples, I know that bone marrow samples must be retrieved during check-ups for leukemia patients. Even still, when Wapner colorfully describes the gruesome bone marrow retrieval process, I’ll admit that I got a bit queasy. Eventually, we are invited into the immense relief that individual experienced when he was told the therapy was working and he had years more to live that he had never anticipated having. The story-telling here and in the rest of the book is masterful in the sense that we begin to fully appreciate the plight of these leukemia patients and just how important science and the resulting therapy was for them. Continue reading…
The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
If you’re interested in a book that leans more towards historical non-fiction with some light science sprinkled throughout, then this is a great book to read. In just the introduction of The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan does an excellent job of painting a vivid picture of this period of the 1940s in a “town” that most of the country did not know even existed. Very quickly, we are placed into the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, where radioactive material was enriched for the atomic bombs. Oak Ridge, Tennessee may have been isolated from the rest of the country and shrouded in secrecy, but like any town packed with every type of person, it faced moral and social problems just like the rest of the country in the 1940s. Problems like segregation, sexism among the workforce, and the psychological effects of living in an environment where everything you do is a secret. Through the lens of the women of Oak Ridge and the atomic bomb, Kiernan tells a story that many did not know or fully understand for decades after the war ended, and yet everything in this book resonates with the problems and emotions that we experience today. Continue reading…
The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey
I am by no one’s definition an adrenaline junkie, but the introduction of Susan Casey’s The Wave is enough to get any reader’s heart pounding and mind racing from secondhand adrenaline. Casey’s ability to so vividly drop the reader into those first few harrowing, white-knuckle scenes is astounding. Despite being born and raised in California, the farthest I’ve been from the shoreline was the hour spent snorkeling along the beach for a school trip, and yet with Casey’s story-telling, it felt like I was on that ship in the middle of a storm that produced wave sizes that no one had predicted. Her writing style and the narrative she carries through this book stuck with me so much that even though it’s been four years since I first found and read this book, it kept me riveted the entire time that I re-read it. And perhaps more importantly, four years later, this book is still one of the first books I recommend to people who are looking for something non-fiction to read. Continue reading…