Holiday reading 2019

Pasteur is ready for a good book. But what will he put down his swan-neck flask for?                  (Click HERE for more of Oliver’s artwork)

We’re going to be away for the next couple of weeks, so here’s a few page-turners to recommend whether you’re by the beach, in the glades, or on the waves.


The secret life of science by Jeremy Baumberg
Essential reading (seriously!), as this is wholly focused on a theme of great interest to all of us – the human/social side of the scientific endeavour. It’s an admirable attempt to describe the entire scientific ecosystem: research, funders, publishers, conferences, institutions, scientists. Naturally, that’s far too big a subject to tackle effectively in a book of readable size, but it’s a good starting point at least. Coming from the physical sciences, Baumberg also has a useful perspective for biologist readers. It’s not great prose, though he manfully tries to rise to the occasion in parts, and his ecosystem analogy is sometimes helpful, sometimes twee. There’s not always a commitment to providing data to back up assertions, which makes elements of it more subjective than factual. For all that though, this is a profoundly important and useful exercise, written by someone who’s clearly thinking both within and outside the box and capable of moments of startling clarity and insight. It’s frequently depressing too, if only for the sense of professional cynicism and attention-seeking that seems to have crept into the enterprise.

Why torture doesn’t work by Shane O’Mara
The prosaic title would be “the effect of stress on information recall and the brain”, but seeing as it takes aim at the CIA and advanced interrogation techniques then the title is appropriate rather than sensationalistic. Fascinating, required reading, and one that utterly demolishes the case for using torture in any way that claims to be legally justified. Torture, O’Mara makes clear, is extremely effective at eliciting false confessions and – probably in most cases – exacting retributive violence upon a perceived transgressor, but utterly lousy at extracting information from people’s brains, whether they’re compliant or not. He methodically and rigorously examines the different types of torture promoted by the CIA – waterboarding, sleep deprivation, extremes of heat and cold, stress positions – and shows how each harms the brain’s physiology and why information retrieval, even in volunteers, would be compromised. The book strikes the right balance between scientific rigour (you’re in no doubt that each of his assertions is backed up by evidence, as he cites generously) and readability. Later on he considers the motivations for torture, with the predictable nods to the Milgram experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment, before ending with a surprisingly affecting reminder that torturers usually end up with PTSD too and how engaging in such behaviour almost inevitably damns the perpetrators.

Drone by Hugh Gusterton
Like the machines of its title, this is a light, mobile, and devastating piece of analysis. Gusterton neatly sketches the past and present of the drone, and its gradual evolution from surveillance tool to unmanned warcraft. The book provides some eye-popping insights into the capabilities of modern drone warfare, draws a neat parallel to the colonial wars of the British Empire in terms of its utility in asymmetric warfare, and delves dispassionately but sympathetically into the predicament of the drone pilots (unfairly but hilariously lampooned as the “Chair Force” by aircraft fliers), who are placed under psychological stressors unlike those faced by their brethren in regular deployment.



Lab girl by Hope Jahren
A raging five-star, two-thumbs-up, gold-plated, diamond-studded recommendation for a book that captures everything (EVERYTHING) that this blog is about. Jahren weaves an unflinching  account of life in academia together with asides about the unique biology of the plant world, and produces something rich, magical, strange, wondrous, and all too easy to relate to. All the stresses that young scientists encounter are here, all the worries, all the confusion, all the self-doubt, the euphoria, the depression, the career crunches, the fleeting highs, the crushing lows, all told with wit, verve, and candour. All of us could probably tell a story like this, but it’s Jahren that did it, and said it better than any of us could.

The astronomer and the witch by Ulinka Rublack
You thought Kepler was merely one of the most important figures in the history of astronomy? Think again. He also defended his mother against an accusation of witchcraft. Rublack’s account of the background and course of the trial provides an immersive depiction of the social and academic life of the late 16th and early 17th century. For our full review, see HERE.

The dancing bees: Karl von Frisch and the discovery of the honeybee language by Tania Munz.
An extraordinarily fluent piece of work, given that it not only covers Frisch’s biography but also a fairly detailed account of his research findings, while managing to convey both the full excitement of scientific discovery and the painstaking and meticulous work that goes into the best science. Frisch’s story is interesting from an historical angle, given that he was persecuted by the Nazis and their academic sympathisers on account of being one-quarter Jewish, yet contrived to maintain a full research program throughout the war and even revamped his research direction to make it more palatable to war aims. The Frisch that Munz sketches comes across as neither a Nazi sympathiser, nor a rebel – like most people probably would have been, he’s somewhere in between. The moral quandary such behaviour provokes and the difficulty of reconciling it are unavoidable, and Munz wisely dodges glib conclusions on this point. Where both Frisch and moral concerns can take refuge though is in the work itself – a masterful interrogation of animal physiology that ultimately focuses around honeybee communication. The benefits of understanding the whole organism are clear when Frisch moves into virtuoso experiments culminating in a description of the bee’s visual system. The book also provides an excellent historical perspective on German-American scientific interactions both pre- and post-war.

Consider the lobster by David Foster Wallace
Wallace’s reputation as both a writer but particularly as a human being has taken a real pounding in the wake of the MeToo movement (decide for yourself if you still want to read), but there’s no ignoring the sheer erudition of his prose. Consuming his essays is like sitting down in the pub with a restless, eloquent, witty and always stimulating raconteur who can both inspire you with the power of the English language, and provide insights into human behaviour befitting the wisest of all sages.  This book of essays is a great introduction to his canon.



Munich by Robert Harris
The Trumpian echoes are all too loud in this account of the Munich Agreement of 1938. As always, Harris masterfully conveys a feel for the times and writes both confidently and insightfully about powerful historical figures, though with a human touch. 

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré
A lurid tale of pharmaceutical skulduggery in East Africa, memorable filmed back in 2005. In truth, the film may have actually captured the human drama of the story a bit better, and the weirdly stilted behaviour of some of the Foreign Office characters makes it feel like a story that was left on the shelf for a long time, but there’s still much to enjoy. Le Carré always does a good job of capturing moral outrage against the injustices of the world, and he’s on fertile soil here.

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