Oof!

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016. 9780393245448.

Sarah: Mary Roach is awesome at writing books on a topic and giving you all of the cool things you want to know about and not any of the dumb stuff you don’t want to know about.
Gene: Science-ey topics.
S: Yes, she’s a science writer. She wrote one about what happens to your body after you die, called Stiff.
G: I listened to that while driving to North Dakota last year.
S: They’re great on audio. That one had everything you might want to know about donating your body to science. There’s one about the digestive system, the alimentary canal.
G: That’s called Gulp.
S: And Packing for Mars, which is the only one with a long title. I still talk about things I learned from that book, it’s great in conversation.
G: That one’s about the science needed to go to Mars, and how it’s being developed?
S: Yeah. One of my favorite things from that to bring up in conversation, which is why you should invite me to parties, is that there’s a science behind pet food, dog food especially, to minimize the amount of shit that it creates.
G: Really?
S: They want to make really efficiently digested foods so there’s less poo. You need that if you’re on a spaceship because you don’t want to generate a huge amount of waste.
G: But this book is not about shit?
S: The subtitle to this is The Curious Science of Humans at War. Picking it up, I wasn’t sure this was a good topic for Roach, but she always picks the absolute best topics. She’s not talking about missiles, or about being a spy, or any of the stuff that’s been covered elsewhere. She’s got a chapter on the U.S. military’s fabric and fashion designers, she talks about the kind of fabrics you need if people are going to shoot at you. How they’ve changed some of things about the fabric because of IEDs, how they’ve changed some things because of the way fires start in tanks.

Continue reading “Oof!”

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You won’t like him when he’s angry

The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner. Oneworld Publications, 2017. 9781786072160.

Sarah: I went to Seattle’s cookbook bookstore, Book Larder, and ended up buying a bunch. I highly recommend this bookstore because they don’t have everything, they just have good things. I grabbed several cookbooks plus this one, because the summary of it said it’s exactly the kind of thing I like to read. It’s by this guy with a background in cooking and in chemistry who is angry about fad diets and the bad science and the bad dietary advice they propagate. He covers some of the more recent fad diets and what’s wrong with them, and then has chapters in between where he talks about how to think more critically, more scientifically, how to ask the questions that you need to ask, why you might seem to have good results from a diet even if it doesn’t really work, and how people will recommend a diet if they think it has an effect but if it doesn’t they won’t discourage you.
Gene: If it doesn’t have an effect?
S: So if you try the amazing new whatever diet and it doesn’t do anything for you, are you going to put a testimonial to that effect on the website promoting the diet?
G: Probably not.
S: So I picked it up, expecting to love it because it’s exactly my speed. But I ended up not loving it.
G: Not loving this book?
S: Because it turns out I’ve already read this information. I’m already aware of all of the things he’s talking about, and he covers more of the how to think critically part and less about the crazy diets and where they came from. I ended up skimming to the parts about the new crazy diets and how they originated. I think it’s a good book, but it’s the wrong time for me to read it. This book would have been great for me twenty years ago.
G: Where did you get that information, did you find it in diet books and on websites?
S: I have read other, similar works by medical people and people writing general debunking and critical thinking books. It’s a genre that I read.
G: So you’re wowed by this book because it’s all there.
S: It’s all there! It’s all in one book.
G: And you’ve read enough on the subject that you know it’s good.
S: It’s really good!
G: But this is not the book for you right now because you have read enough books on critical thinking, especially about diets, that what you would get from this book you already have.
S: Exactly!
G: This is a new kind of Book Wow! So it did wow you, you just didn’t need to read it.
S: Right! He has this really great chapter explaining regression to the mean where he explains the concept in a really clear way with an example from his life.
G: What was it?
S: He had this sous chef, mostly he did fine, but every once in a while he would do terribly, he would really mess up in the kitchen. Then he’d get yelled at and the next day he would be better. And every once in a while he would have an awesome day and his bosses would think he finally was getting the hang of this and then the day after, he would drop back to his normal level again. But the author and another chef were talking about this, trying to figure out how help him. The author tried to be encouraging when he did really well, but the other guy only ever yelled at him when he sucked. Now he’s realizing that the whole thing was regression to the mean. The highs and the lows… if you have a really high day, do the best you’ve ever done, you’re not going to stay at the highest point, you’re going to drift back to your average. The worst day you’ve ever had, same thing. So if your health is terrible, and you don’t have a degenerative condition, you’re going to feel better eventually no matter what you do. No matter what diet you try, if you feel cruddy, eventually you’re going to feel better. And the reverse is the same, if you do really awesome, you’re going to get back to normal at some point. It’s this thing that makes an effect appear to happen with all sorts of interventions. If you’re doing a scientific study, you need to have various controls to spot this. He talks about how it’s very difficult to spot, and the whole idea of regression to the mean is recent, it’s only been around since the late 1800s, even though people have been evaluating information like this for a long time. But this was really hard to see.
G: This kind of non-effect effect.
S: You see something happen, but it didn’t happen for the reason you think it did.
G: So things seem to work for you because you are generally OK. Whatever you’re doing is OK. If you feel super-shitty after you ate X, then you feel better when you eat Y, you think you feel better because you ate Y, but not really. You just feel better because you generally feel better.
S: Yeah, and they have to control for this in medicine, when they test a new drug, because that’s exactly what happens with everything. The author says people will ask him, “If this guy feels better after he stops eating gluten, what’s the harm?” and he says that it’s because it’s really limiting your diet, it’s hard to get all the nutrients you need. People who legit have celiac disease have to be super careful. And people will tend to keep eliminating more and more things from their diet.
G: Yeah, that’s interesting.
S: And he has a very carefully-written chapter about eating disorders. He says that he had previously made this statement, that now he realizes is incorrect and apologizes for saying it and for being insensitive about it, and he’d had a lot of people talk to him and correct him: he had said that these fad diets cause people to get eating disorders. Now he says that it isn’t that they cause eating disorders, but people may have an underlying susceptibility to eating disorders and sometimes the thing that triggers them or maybe is the first sign of eating disorders manifesting is that they start doing Clean Eating, which is a particular type of fad diet. You’ll talk to someone who works at an eating disorder clinic and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, like 90 percent of people in this clinic started out with Clean Eating.”
G: What is Clean Eating?
S: It designates certain foods as “dirty” and certain foods as “clean.” Theoretically it’s emphasizing eating more vegetables, eating less processed food, but it ends up giving people a huge array of foods to avoid, that they must remember which are good and which are bad. You end up eliminating the bad foods, and feeling happy that you were able to eliminate the bad foods, that you are good and not bad. It’s really appealing to the part of your brain that can get disordered. The idea of cleanliness, the idea of goodness, the idea of purity associated with your eating really sinks its claws into the part of you that wants to have an eating disorder.
G: Is this like when people talk about a cleanse? Like a blueberry cleanse?
S: I think there’s some overlap, but I think it’s slightly different. (There’s a good overview of it in The Guardian by food writer Bee Wilson.)
You’re going to see it everywhere now, it’s been a fad for maybe five years. I had been seeing books on Clean Eating at the library and wondered, “Clean? How so?”
A lot of this originated on his blog and he talks about how it has changed based on input from his readers, people who wrote in and gave him more context and more information.

Glass Shark

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams. Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 9781626724136.

It says something about the power of art and storytelling (and a lot about Lily Williams) that she can make a complex idea like a trophic cascade (the drastic changes in an ecosystem resulting from the disappearance of an apex predator) clear and compelling to a young audience. As she shows, even though sharks can seem scary, they are absolutely necessary to the health of the oceans. They keep their prey populations in balance which in turn keeps their food sources in balance, and so on and so on, which extends to populations on land as well. The book ends with steps ordinary people can take to protect sharks that are vulnerable to extinction, from buying sustainably caught fish to creating their own shark art.

Croooooow! (Wise cracker)

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner, photographs by Andy Comins, art by Guido de Filippo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544416192.

Crows are so cool! Crow Smarts follows current research in the field on New Caledonian crows and puts it in context with other animal behavior, theories about the brain, and the complexities of animal use of tools. There’s also the funny story of a kid crow learning from its parent how to use a stick to get a juicy grub, as observed by the author. The book is entertaining, engaging, and I learned a lot.

I had heard bits and pieces about crow intelligence, but I had sort of lumped all of them together. Turns out New Caledonian crows are unique even among their clever relatives: they not only use tools, they design tools by carefully snipping twigs and pandan leaves and are able to solve multi-part puzzles like using one tool to retrieve another tool to grab a treat, and bending a piece of wire into a hook to pull up a tiny bucket. (There’s a pretty amusing chapter on some captive New Caledonian crows in a behavior lab in Oxford going through different tests of reasoning and problem solving. They are more successful than human children!) New Caledonian crows have straighter beaks (so it’s easier to hold tools), forward-facing eyes (better depth perception for tools), and no competition for the grubs that burrow in tree trunks (yum).

There’s great information on whether or not big brains are evolutionarily advantageous (only sometimes, as they require a lot of extra food), the overlap in brain processing for tool use and language use, and how both humans and crows live socially and are flexible in what they eat, which encourages cooperation and may have evolved at the same time as tool use.

Every Scientists in the Field book includes the background of a scientist that will broaden your idea of who can go into science fields. This one has a scientist who didn’t start college until he was 30, one who is also an artist and sketches in his field notes (he contributed illustrations for the book), and a local New Caledonian grandfather who captures and re-releases the crows, and is learning about their behavior along with the scientists.

Let’s cheat a bit, and flip to the end of the book: Turner’s bibliography is a long list of articles from peer-reviewed science journals and not, as is the case in many science books for kids, a list of other science books for kids.

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Cow

Prudence the Part-Time Cow by Jody Jensen Shaffer, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis. Godwin Books, 2017. 9781627796156.

Prudence the cow spends hours being a scientist, an architect, and an engineer by observing her world and building new things. The rest of the cows are unimpressed, and even say she’s not really one of the herd because she can’t act like a normal cow. Prudence is heartbroken, but her efforts to fit in are quickly overcome by her desire to calculate wind speed and invent a sunhat to supplement their shade tree. The resolution is a lovely bit of problem-solving by Prudence showing the benefits of science by someone who knows a community’s needs. (That’s a message that I hope sticks with kids who have been told that they don’t belong in scientific fields.)

Hacks and Snacks

Edible Inventions: Cooking Hacks and Yummy Recipes You Can Build, Mix, Bake, and Grow by Kathy Ceceri. Maker Media, 2016. 9781680452051.

Like I said last time, maker books cover a lot of territory, from the sort of safe educational activities you used to learn about on PBS science shows to building a robot that spits fire. Edible Inventions spans a fun segment of the usual danger and futuristic-ness spectrums. You can build a hydraulic Lego 3D printer (a sort of food-based pen-plotter that can draw on a graham cracker with frosting), do your own molecular gastronomy by making gelatin dots and agar noodles, freeze a sorbet with dry ice, and make fancy fermented ketchup from scratch. There are also the projects I remember fondly from my own youth: solar ovens, homemade granola, home-fermented yogurt, and a tin-can cooker. Which is not to say that these golden oldies haven’t been updated! The section on that old standard, growing a tree from an avocado pit, also has instructions for growing new plants from the root ends of leeks, garlic, and romaine lettuce. There’s enough here to not only appeal to kids but to challenge them as well, plus chapter bibliographies in case they want to go further.

The Big Book of Surgery

The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery by Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Bulfinch Press, 1997. 9780821223772. 128pp.

Gene: This is a Wow, but it’s also potentially an Ick. What I love about sharing books with you is that I’m digging into books that I’ve kept for a long time and asking myself why I’ve kept them, and if they’re worth hanging on to. This book freaks me out.
Sarah: Ugh!
G: It’s photographs of surgery. I’ve looked at it so many times, but so quickly, that I didn’t realize before the other day that a lot of the pictures are of the same surgery. I never read the essay before (I did a little this time) because the photos take over my brain and then I have to stop looking at it. Continue reading “The Big Book of Surgery”