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).
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…
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.