Don Hosek - Past reading - Science

This is the archive of my reading. Soon, I'll put in the subject subindexes.

What I've been read in the past - Science
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
[Finished 3 February 2016] This book kept turning up in the best of 2015 lists, so I decided to give it a look. Macdonald does a great job of braiding several narrative threads, her loss of her father, her training of a goshawk and the life of the writer T. H. White. At times the threads fray, but even then, the elegance of Macdonald’s prose keeps the reader bound to the text.

On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Bliss
[Finished 17 November 2014] This was an odd book. At one point Bliss really nails the oddity of the book when she talks about how she was surprised to consider herself “press” when denied an interview with a doctor. The subject matter is the sort of thing that might call for a journalistic investigation but instead we get something that lives firmly in creative non-fiction land. There’s a wonderful examination of the cultural and scientific aura that surrounds vaccination (Bliss, thankfully, is not an anti-vaxer or I would never have made it to the end of the book) showing how the two have been intertwined for as long as the subject of immunity has been understood (or just half-understood). Plus, I learned that etymologically, vaccine comes from the Latin vaca, cow.

The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield
[Finished 5 November 2014] See my review at

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us and How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David H. Freedman
[Finished 9 September 2014] See review at

The Best American Essays 2012 edited by David Brooks
[Finished 3 August 2013] I’m not really a non-fiction person. It’s always surprised me how little the fiction section comprises of most bookstores. So this is the first time I’ve given the Best American Essays series a go. I have to admit it hasn’t really changed my mind. The pieces that I enjoyed the most were those that formally could have been short stories rather than essays, such as David J. Lawless’s “My Father/My Husband” about his wife’s Alzheimer’s-related dementia, while those that veered into polemic, like Marcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry,” were difficult to get through (I almost wonder, given the tone of Angell’s piece whether she might be connected to the Scientologists).

Project Physics by Harvard Project Physics
[Finished 18 June 2013] Written as a high school textbook to teach physics without requiring calculus, this ends up being a bit of an odd bird. The chapters on mechanics end up being a bit vague since it’s hard to really talk about acceleration without a concept of the derivative (and anti-derivative). Curiously, the chapters on nuclear physics and relativity don’t suffer as much from a lack of higher mathematics. The title seems a bit misleading as there are no projects actually on offer in the textbook (although there were apparently supplementary materials with said projects). The organization around the history of Physics does make for a good read, although there is perhaps a bit too much time dedicated to incorrect theories for my tastes. My overall reaction is that physics is a subject that can only be covered superficially without calculus at the ready.

Geek Dad's Guide to Weekend Fun by Ken Denmead
[Finished 11 January 2013] Maybe it’s because of my lack of kids, but I didn’t really find most of the ideas in this book that interesting or worthy of doing. Maybe in a later version of myself my attitude will change, but for now I can see why this was on the hyper-discounted shelves of our local Border’s when they were closing down

The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of Forty-Five Victorian Women by Clelia Duel Mosher
[Finished 17 August 2012] I first heard about this book courtesy of an article from Stanford Magazine which got some play on the internet. An ILL request later and I was reading the book myself. This is pure primary source material, other than a pair of short introductions, this is nothing more than raw typescripts of the handwritten survey forms. Despite the relatively narrow demographics of the survey (these seem to be mostly faculty wives in the survey), there is a surprising variety of attitudes to sex and some wonderfully expressed views about marital relations. I guess the thing to do know is to look to see if this appears in the social sciences citation index and read those papers.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
[Finished 8 April 2012] A difficult book to react to. I found myself reading this in the context of the criticism of The Help. Once again, we have a story of a white girl coming to the rescue of black folks, but this time, the story is true. Is it somehow more or less acceptable given that fact? And is this an oversimplification of the question? Had this been a straightforward piece of scientific writing, this issue wouldn’t be so prominent. Even by including the story of Henrietta Lacks’s life, we get a human dimension, but no questions of race rise up. But in the inclusion of Rebecca herself into the narrative, the white girl coming in to fix things (although unlike in The Help, one could make the argument that Skloot doesn’t really reach the same level of success—real life can be tricky that way).

There are few cases where the appearance of the biographer in the biography manages to be a successful endeavor (Ian Hamilton’s The Search for J. D. Salinger comes to mind). I’m still not sure if this is one of those instances.

Your Happy Healthy Pet Beagle by Elaine Waldorf Gerwitz
[Finished 20 January 2012] A somewhat redundant book, but our visit to the library resulted in us clearing the beagle books from the shelves. The chapter on training was pretty good and for those who would have adopted a puppy there is a great deal of essential information. It does appear that there’s a fair amount of cut and pasting done between this book and other breed-specific books in the same series.

Beagles for Dummies by Susan McCullough
[Finished 8 January 2012] A useful and somewhat interesting book, although much of what I needed to know, I learned from Cesar Millan before reading this. There were some fun bits of trivia and this would not be a bad book for someone considering getting themselves a beagle even if the prose tends to be a bit precious at times.

A Member of the Family: The Ultimate Guide to Living with a Happy, Healthy Dog by Cesar Millan
[Finished 11 December 2011] Since my wife and I were in the process of getting a dog (which we’ve now done), and she’s a devotee of Cesar’s from his TV show, we read this book to make sure that we were on the same page for how to train our newly adopted beast. In all, it’s a pretty good book, although it tends to be a bit short in some specifics. I would have liked to have gotten direction on how best to apply Cesar’s principles to some of the behavior modifications that we would like to train in our dog.

Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang
[Finished 19 September 2011] I think i heard about this book from Science Friday. At the very least, I remember hearing about many of the topics covered in the book on that program. The book is written in a casual breezy style, frequently choosing anecdote as a way of introducing a subject. There was little in here that I didn’t already know, but I’ve managed to read a bit more than the typical layman on questions of neuroscience and psychology, but for the neophyte in this arena, I can see this being a valuable introduction, especially since there’s a good selection of references for deeper reading referenced to each chapter.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel
[Finished 8 September 2009] Much of the core of the story in this book I learned from Koeppel’s interviews on NPR (he was on Fresh Air and, I think, Science Friday), but it’s still interesting to get the details filled in, to see how banana cultivation represents the ultimate monoculture, with all bananas in a given variety being genetically identical.

Koeppel makes a compelling case for the importance of GM techniques in creating a future for the banana and points out that since bananas are sterile and propagate only through cloning that many of the concerns about GM techniques in other plants are inapplicable when it comes to the banana. Given that in Africa the banana is a central part of the diet (in some areas 70% of the caloric intake comes from bananas), preserving a future for the banana makes for a critical concern on the continent.

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel
[Finished 20 February 2009] A wonderfully written accounting of an obscure bit of history. Who knew that Galileo had children (two daughters and a son). The daughters were sent to a convent while the son turned into a bit of a ne’er-do-well. The oldest daughter, though, remained devoted to her father and while his letters to her no longer exist, hers to him have been preserved and Sobel uses the letters for the narrative hook on which she hangs her biography.

There’s a fair amount which was new to me, even having a deeper than the usual paragraph-long summary that came out of my high school history classes. Sobel manages to paint all the characters in the drama with a fair amount of nuance showing exactly what the forces were that led to Galileo’s famed trial and the consequences of the trial in Galileo’s life.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
[Finished 29 April 2008] I picked this up thinking that it as going to be primarily a science fiction-ish accounting of a future earth without human beings. And it was to a certain extent, but even more so, it’s an interesting account of how we as a species have impacted our environment, both in the obvious ways (cities, farms) and the non-obvious (small bits of plastic entering the eco-system, invasive species, reshaping the landscape in our image). As an overall narrative, it’s not as cohesive as I would have liked, which seems to be a common shortcoming of a lot of contemporary non-fiction (I think this is a consequence of journalists writing book-length pieces). But even with its failings, this is still a fascinating book and one which provides an interesting insight into human impact on global ecology.

Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade
[Finished 16 June 2007] A fascinating book. Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, gives a pretty good overview of what science has been able to learn from DNA sequencing. By examing things like the variations in mitochondrial DNA (revealing the matrilineal heritage) and the Y-chromosome (revealing the patrilineal heritage), it’s possible to do things like find the spread of humanity from our ancestral homeland in East Africa throughout the world. What’s more, by making inferences from the rate of mutation in the DNA, it’s also possible to date the spread of humans into each part of the world, correlating that from geological history and fossil evidence to get some sense of prehistoric anthropology that was not previously accessible.

My only complaint about the book is Wade’s willingness--eagerness even--to accept as fact theories on the edge of acceptibility. Science tends to be inherently conservative, much to the consternation of science journalists who are looking for a big story, not an incremental advance in knowledge, and while it’s not difficult to find cases where the radical theorist was correct, it’s also easy to forget about all the cases where the radical theorist was completely off base.

The Horned Dinosaurs by Peter Dodson
[Finished 4 November 2002] Like most kids, I was fascinated by dinosaurs, especially the ceratopsians, courtesy of Oliver Butterworth’s The Enormous Egg, so when I spotted this book in a theatre book sale, I grabbed it. It turned out to be well worth reading. I’ve learned far more about the ceratopsians than I’d imagined possible, and I find myself wanting to read more paleontology for adults.

The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History by Libbie Hill
[Finished 27 September 2002] Growing up in the Chicago area, I was taught early on the tragic-heroic outline of the history of the river. Its foolish use as a sewer (the river emptied into the lake which was the primary source of drinking water), its reversal so that the sewage went to the Gulf of Mexico instead.

But the details were often lost and this book provides a good explanation of the hows and whys of the river, but naturally and artificially. Especially fascinating to me were the historic maps overlayed with contemporary street grids. Who knew about the forks of the south branch that no longer flow? Mud Lake I did know (I grew up in its bed), but it’s all a great read.

Dinosaur in a Haystack by Stephen J. Gould
[Finished 21 August 2001] This is my first experience reading Gould’s writing and it’s been quite a pleasure.

Gould is largely concerned with evolutionary science and does a good job of explaining how we are able to know the things that we know. At times the defensiveness against the creationists gets a bit wearying, but I imagine that from where he sits, it seems all to current of an issue to ignore.