Below you will find new additions to the library print collection. Many of our new titles are conveniently located on display & on the "New Nonfiction" shelf on the 1st floor of the library in the lobby.
Environment & Society:
Business & Hospitality:
Our author, Mr. Daniel Graham, gets his thesis out of the gate in the very first sentence of the preface. The brain, in the mind of both the average person and the neuroscientist, is commonly seen as a biological computer—a machine that makes calculations based on inputs and pre-existing programming. But, in keeping with the title of his book, Mr. Graham says it is closer to a biological internet. He clarifies that he does not intend to replace the “computer” model of the brain, merely to build upon. There is no doubt that the brain makes computations, but Mr. Graham emphasizes the importance of communication between different parts of the brain during decision-making and how it can give us greater understanding of the purpose of different processes.
The book naturally includes many discussions of the finer points of synapses and connectomes, but the fundamental point remains the importance of thinking about the brain using the right metaphors, one of those being the internet. It’s interesting, at least to me, how the rigor, procedure, and data gathering that are normally associated with the scientific method take a back seat in a book about a subject as dense as the science of the brain—but I wouldn’t say that’s a problem. After all, every experiment needs a hypothesis to be tested, and building a hypothetical model is easier when you have a familiar reference point. In other words, the main value of the book is less in the specific neurological information and more in the new ways of thinking it offers to budding neurologists. And, frankly, teaching new ways of thinking is one of the main purposes of a college. So, if I were a professor, I could see myself adding this to my course reading. And then, of course, there is the inherent value of any book which uses the words “telephony” and “meatspace” multiple times each.
That said, I do wonder how thinking of the brain as an “internet” might have different results between different theorists, depending on how familiar with the internet they actually are. Many of us naturally associate the internet with cats and video ads, rather than network shortcuts and acknowledgement loops. Even I, a computer science major myself, admit to never having heard the technical term “ack” before reading this book. Therefore, a legitimate concern that one might raise is that the reader needs at least some prior knowledge about two different subjects—the brain, and the internet. Still, if we understood everything from the very beginning, there would be no need for books in the first place. And, on a final note, later parts of the book apparently discuss the possibility of the internet itself having its own consciousness. I am very curious to learn what Mr. Graham means by that.
Funnily enough, as I read through the first parts of this book, my mind went back and forth on whether it should be considered a “textbook” or not. It’s lighter than the average textbook, to be sure, but it still seems to be the same sort of book with the same general purpose. And, indeed, it does have many of the right trappings, including review questions and suggestions for learning activities at the end of chapter. However, once you get into the text itself, the label doesn’t seem quite as accurate. Our author, Ms. Willa Zhen, gives her book more of a personal touch than that. She reflects on her own experiences as a food researcher, the evolving nature of the field, and the way so much of it is interwoven into everyday life. There are, I assure you, no dry lists or tables to be found here—it is, in perhaps a truer sense than most, a guide, meant to help the reader along their way, and with that as the goal, one might say a certain rapport is needed.
Ms. Zhen sometimes even addresses the reader directly, asking questions or providing reassurances on their own interests in food. She seems to take a certain delight in what she sees as a renewed enthusiasm for food as a concept among the younger generations--the new population of “Foodies,” one of her favorite terms. She emphasizes, however, that “foodie” is a broad category, and not the same as a student of food. The reader, she suggests, is already a “foodie,” because “After all, you have made the decision to read this book on Food Studies.” But of course, there is a possibility she has not considered: I am reading this book because someone is paying me to. Food studies, in her eyes, are a natural extension of being a foodie, but require greater reflection and awareness of the broader context. The evolved form of foodies, if you will.
I now realize, though, that I’ve gotten ahead of myself – I haven’t given Ms. Zhen’s exact definition of Food studies as a science. Food studies, she says, is the study of the relationship between food and humans. It extends to interpersonal relationships, entertainment, poetry, even politics. For example, speaking of former president Barack Obama, Ms. Zhen says, “The food-loving crowd has given him and former first lady Michelle Obama props for embracing celebrity chefs, dining out at some of the hottest restaurants in America, encouraging mindful eating habits among the nation’s children and families, and even putting an organic garden in the United States.” I assume either that a word or several words are missing, or that Ms. Zhen is severely overestimating the rarity of organic gardens, but it's still a very interesting observation. And considering we study and work at a college whose culinary program speaks for itself, we may be in an unusually good position to take advantage of these overlapping disciplines. Going forward, I could see food studies books like this one being added to both our cooking and sociology courses.
Our author, Ms. Leah Ruppanner, begins with something of a narrative. She introduces us to two women, Ava and Michelle; the former is having an easy time going back to work after having a baby, the latter is not. However, she concludes by saying that these women likely do not live in the states you think they live in. Well, technically, the final piece of pertinent information she gives is that these two women are hypothetical characters, when I had assumed they were real-life case-studies—and if you had assumed that as well, I apologize for spoiling the twist for you. It was a twist that, for me, was nearly as shocking as learning that [redacted]’s father was [redacted] in Star Wars (I am trying not to spoil this twist for the tiny minority of you who do not know it already—even forty years on, you deserve to experience it as George Lucas intended). This, I suppose, speaks to Ms. Ruppanner’s abilities as a writer, though she uses this device much more sparingly in the rest of the books.
Regardless, this is meant to illustrate her primary thesis—that different states within these United States have different advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the burdens faced by working mothers. Put another way, conservative states get some things right, liberal states get other things right. And the real difference between states, the book asserts, is not “left” and “right” or “good” and “bad,” but rather, states which provide easier access to childcare, and make mother’s lives easier on a practical level, and states which legally guarantee economic equality for mothers. Only Hawaii and Washington D.C., the book argues, do both. Ms. Ruppanner strikes me as someone who has been frustrated by oversimplified dichotomies many times during the course of her life and career (she even spends a good portion of the first chapter discussing how the standard for classifying different types of welfare is oversimplified). While she’s happy to sort states into categories when summarizing, and criticize all of them for their inadequacies, when she gets into the details of policies and programs, it almost feels like a “ground up” approach. She lays out what’s there, and discusses how it could be improved upon. It reminds me of an idea I’ve occasionally seen, that policies are like a “toolbox,” that we should use the right tool for the right circumstances—she seems to want a more comprehensive toolkit than what anyone is using at the moment. She also mentions that in later chapters, she’ll be discussing how factors like race, economics, and politics affect the situations of mothers in various states—another field of study that piques my interest.
That said, I do wonder how the broader population of ideologues would react to this kind of attitude. To be sure, Ms. Ruppanner provides explanations for why certain states have it better than others, explanations that are, by all appearances, unbiased, but partisanship can make even scholars like us irrational. I admit to having trouble keeping my own political beliefs out of this discussion. With this in mind, I can easily imagine others scoffing at her idea of bipartisan adoption of the policies of many different states. A leftist, for example, might argue that conservative states push mothers out of employment because they are too conservative, while liberal states do the same because they are too moderate. The real solution, they would say, is for all states to move further to the left. This may seem like a strawman, but I assure you, most self-described socialists see the Democratic Party as much too conservative, and merely the lesser of two evils. Meanwhile, it’s possible a conservative might say that the problems of working mothers can only be solved with policies more conservative than even the “red” states have been willing to adopt. Still, even if Ms. Ruppanner’s message only reaches 1% of people, part of that message is that we can make a perfect whole out of our imperfect parts. If we’d like to be some of those parts ourselves, maybe this book can help.
Most academic authors begin their books with a general overview of their research, its goals, and how they intend to present it over the course of the book. Our author, Mr. Oliver Milman, is not most academic authors. He begins his book with a very original take on the apocalypse. Specifically, an apocalypse caused by the deaths of all the world’s insects—Mad Max looks tame in comparison. Out of all the ways to draw your readers in, this is probably in the top five, though I do question his decision to spend a section on how the bland the food would be, especially since he doesn’t bring it up until he’s already a few pages in. Once you’ve read the phrase “tsunami of feces,” everything afterwards seems pretty tame.
Regardless, it’s an effective way of introducing Mr. Milman’s thesis: Insect populations are declining at an alarming rate, and that’s bad news for everyone. Insects pollinate flowers, they break down carcasses, they dispose of waste, and they serve as the main food source for many larger creatures. But putting it that simply is doing Mr. Milman a disservice—quite honestly, he does an excellent job of conveying the gravity of the situation on an emotional level. It might well be my favorite read so far. And if the earlier turn of phrase turned you off on his writing, I should point out that the book also contains the term “the Krefeld thunderbolt;” if his job studying insects doesn’t work out, he should get a job naming fighter jets!
But it isn’t all drama and lurid imagery—I would say the book also offers insights into the practice of entomology. In particular, the book highlights the unsung heroes who actually go out and measure the raw numbers of insects within ecosystems, often just by laying out simple traps and letting large masses of the little fellows stumble into them over the course of the day. I’m beginning to see why spinning webs is such a common strategy for spiders. The book also spends some time discussing how insects are classified into different species—apparently, a lot of it involves examining their genitalia to see if they can reproduce with each other or not. A lot of it might be very basic for an expert, but for someone with no experience (like me) and especially someone just getting into the field, I imagine it would be very interesting.
All the same, I should warn you, this book is yet more proof of the saying “ignorance is bliss.” If you have any investment in the future of the environment, many parts of this will not be pleasant to read. The book covers the disappearance of butterflies, the collapse of bee hives, the extinction of species before they’ve even been officially discovered, and the perilous edge that all our ecosystems are teetering over—if they haven’t fallen already. Myself, I cannot stand to think of how many unique forms of life have been lost because of my own species. To me, this carving away of the most beautiful parts of the world is nothing short of a tragedy that we are now helpless to stop, and my heart aches at it, it really does. As laughable as it may seem, I can only find comfort in the hope that cloning technology might advance far enough to bring some of them back someday. However, despite it all, I do sense an undercurrent of hope buried in Mr. Milman’s warnings. According to him, if nothing else, the studies showing insect populations being cut in half have been a wake-up call. People are finally starting to listen. People are finally starting to realize just how quiet their neighborhoods are without the buzzes and hums of their local bugs, and they may finally be ready to something about it. I certainly hope so.
I admit, going into this book, I wondered what it could possibly have to say that wasn’t immediately obvious. I am a man who enjoys thinking about the ways human society could be improved through humans’ own scientific prowess, and the idea of meat grown from cultures instead of harvested from living animals is as exciting an idea as any. But what is there to say about it, beyond the fact that it exists? Would it simply be a series of dry technical reports that only a learned biologist (which I am not) would understand? I gave our author, Mr. Paul Shapiro, far too little credit—both his writing style and his subject matter are much more accessible to general audiences than that. This is less a book on biology (a field which, to be clear, I do not mean to impugn) and more a book on the environmental and sociological impacts of “cultured meat.” Mr. Shapiro’s point is that they would be overwhelmingly positive.
In his discussion of the many benefits of “clean meat,” he touches on a variety of issues. First, of course, is the conditions of modern “factory farms,” which many would argue are unconscionably cruel—and which this new form of meat could completely eliminate. And of course, there would be massive environmental benefits—land clearance for cattle ranching is the main killer of rainforests, and raising an animal requires burning a lot of extra carbon in and of itself. Then there are the sanitary concerns—chicken grown in a lab is much less likely to be infected with salmonella. But by far Mr. Shapiro’s most poignant argument concerns the transfer of new diseases from animals to humans. He points to the avian flu outbreak of 1918 as his main example; “If an outbreak on the scale of the 1918 pandemic occurred today,” he says, “it could prove even more devastating.” This book was published in 2018.
One thing I do wonder about is if Mr. Shapiro’s personal perspective will affect the effectiveness of his message. Mr. Shapiro is a vegan—not that this is problem on its own, I am a vegetarian myself, but he writes from a distinctly vegan perspective. As mentioned, many of his arguments are based on safety and efficiency, irrespective of how a person might feel about animal welfare, but still, one gets the sense that to him, it is self-evident that slaughtering animals for food is morally wrong. At no point does he ever insult meat-eaters, but he does speak of them with a very outsider-looking-in kind of tone. This is best exemplified in his favorite word for them—omnivores. Not a negative term, but a very technical one for a group that probably includes the person reading it. Not many meat-eaters would describe themselves as “omnivorous,” after all.
My greater fear, though, is that even the purely pragmatic arguments Mr. Shapiro makes will fall on deaf ears. A sad truth of our society is that both morals and logic often take a back seat to prejudices and established interests. Mr. Shapiro himself remarks that “the American Medical Association now calls for a federal ban on using antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals, but due to the ag and pharma lobby interests, the doctors’ call so far has fallen on deaf ears.” If the lobbies are willing to spend millions killing legislation that would put a minor dent in their production efficiency, imagine how they’d feel about an effort to kill their entire industry. Solar power became cheap and practical a long time ago, but there are still businessmen making millions off of coal, and politicians who built their career around defending it. Not to mention the so-called “coal rollers,” people who go out of their way to produce as much air pollution as possible, purely to spite environmentalists. I have no doubt that even if cultured meat became widely available, and cheaper than meat from a butcher shop, there would still be a market of people eating slaughtered meat out of sheer hatred for vegans. Perhaps Mr. Shapiro addresses these problems in later chapters. Either way, the promise of meat without slaughter is a very sincere one, but it’s up to humanity as a whole to believe in it.
Our authors this time chose a reasonably good title for their book, but I think the thesis would be slightly clearer if the two sides of the colon were reversed. That is, if you want to expand freedom, increase opportunity, and promote equality, use the public option—according to them, at least. The “public option” itself is defined as a government owned, government provided service that coexists with private businesses offering the same services—while it may seem like a novel concept, our authors point out that “public options” already exist in many aspects of American life. Public schools are the “public option” when compared to private schools, and the US Postal Service is the public option when compared to FedEx and UPS. I could personally also give the example of Amtrak—I took the train home from college many times, and it was a service I became quite familiar with. At its most basic, the book’s argument in favor of public options is that they provide a more affordable alternative to private services while also forcing private businesses to improve the quality of their services in order to compete. Of course, the specific pros and cons of government-owned services in various fields can get more complicated, but that’s why there’s a whole book about the subject.
Our authors spend most of the first chapter discussing the historical context—how economic stability and possible solutions to poverty and inequality have changed over the past sixty years. They point out how Americans have much less stable jobs nowadays, they discuss the so-called “gig economy,” and reflect on how recent financial panics have shaken people’s faith in unregulated markets. The point being, of course, that what worked in the nineteen-fifties is unlikely to work now. What I find interesting is that America’s economic and employment situation, as they’ve described it, seems to have gotten much more complicated over time, and therefore much harder for the average citizen to navigate. The presented solution, though, is less about making it easier find your way through the mess of financial challenges, and more about bypassing it altogether. I feel like adding these public options could be compared to adding an easy mode to the game of life--and hey, sometimes an easy, relaxing game is all you need.
One other aspect of the book that stands out to me is the way our authors portray the “public option” as a distinctly American solution. As mentioned, many American institutions essentially follow the model already, and both in theory and practice, it’s a system that has more support in the US than, say, the publicly controlled or heavily regulated institutions in many parts of Europe. While one could argue that this is a fallacious appeal to patriotism, I think it presents an interesting question of whether different solutions work better for different countries. Is there one universally superior set of policies that everyone should adopt, or do different economic and social situations require more specialized solutions? Maybe there’s something to be said for building a unique economic system that matches our unique society. As with every book I’ve showcased here, I encourage you to read it, and decide for yourself.
Many authors begin their books by laying out a scene—laying the foundation of their thesis through a brief yet focused story, hoping to capture the reader’s interest through vivid imagery, rather than dry statistics. A marine biologist might start their book by evoking the powerful image of a shark surging through the water. A cosmologist might make poetry out of the formation of a new star. An entomologist might describe a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and taking flight, or, as the case may be, lay out a hypothetical post-insect apocalypse. Our author this time, Mr. Mark Alt, employs this literary device as well, but there is one thing that sets him apart from all the rest—he describes an event which I have witnessed firsthand. He describes the opening of Final Fantasy VII.
There is a strange, almost indescribable sense of satisfaction when seeing something you personally know, from your own childhood, discussed in a serious context. It tells you that what you loved mattered, that it had a real impact on the world. Oftentimes, when reading an analysis of some society or culture, even one’s own, it feels vague and abstract—the author speaks in general terms, discusses broad trends and patterns that the average person would never pick up on. Even when they get into the specifics, it seems hypothetical. But as someone who grew up watching Pokemon, and whose father grew up watching Speed Racer, this is a book I can actually relate to. This book feels real. Now, I know, of course, that an excessive interest in Japanese culture is still seen as the purview of antisocial nerds by many—for reasons both bad and good. Some will talk of the “weebs” in a manner resembling schoolyard bullies, yet somehow more socially acceptable—mocking people just for having a hobby they don’t understand. Still, there is something to be said against the misappropriation, even fetishization, of another culture. But regardless, even the most straight-laced and conventional of Americans has still seen Spirited Away and played Mario; nowadays, Japanese media is just a fact of life. Even if you have doubts, you may end up finding this book as relatable as I do.
Despite it all, though, there are times when I can’t help but shake my head in amusement at the examples Mr. Alt chooses. Some of them, quite frankly, are the equivalent of “dad music.” I will say again, Final Fantasy VII was an iconic game during my childhood, but it was during my very early childhood, when I was too young to even really understand the mechanics. I never actually played it past the first level. Nowadays, Final Fantasy is generally seen as past its prime; If you were to ask someone my age what their favorite Japanese video game is, they’d be more likely to say Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, Nier: Automata, Breath of the Wild, or, in my case, Xenoblade and Fire Emblem. Mine is the generation of the Switch, not the Gameboy, My Hero Academia, not Sailor Moon. Most tellingly of all, as early as the introduction, Mr. Alt sings the praises of Hello Kitty, calling her “the single most recognized icon of feminine power,” yet does not even mention Pokemon until partway into chapter one, and then only briefly. I can hardly blame Mr. Alt for using the reference points he’s most familiar with, but it does exemplify a trend of media needing to be more than twenty years old to receive any academic attention. To those film studies majors out there, I have no doubt that your professors have assigned far more readings on Kubrick and Carpenter than on James Gunn and Jordan Peele, just as I have no doubt that in twenty years, there will be a course on anime that extols the greatness of Attack on Titan and Kill la Kill, while completely ignoring what came out the previous year. It seems that popular culture is only worth studying when people young enough to be nostalgic for it become old enough to have PhDs.
But enough about my own relationship to the text. The first chapter itself offers something perhaps more valuable than relatability—context. One of the points the book makes very well is that the acceptance of anime, Subarus, and Nintendo consoles into American culture didn’t happen overnight, and is, in fact, the culmination of a complex socioeconomic relationship between Japan and the “western” world dating back to the nineteenth century. Americans tend to imagine a sharp divide between the stereotypical feudal, romantic, Samurai-dominated Japan of the past, and the stereotypical flashy, roboticized, commercial Japan of the present, but Mr. Alt shows how the line between these two already oversimplified worlds is much blurrier than most realize. This isn’t just the story of a society, though. Mr. Alt also includes the stories of individuals, individuals who helped clear a path for modern Japan, and by extension the modern world, simply by living their lives as best as they could. Mr. Alt can start with an apprentice toymaker born in 1899, and connect the dots up to that iconic beginning of a game that got a remake just two years ago. More than anything, though, I think Mr. Alt does a very good job of showing Americans the Japanese perspective on Japan in the twentieth century—at times, what seemed like a new wave of cheap foreign trinkets to us was actually the first glimmer of hope in a war-torn land. In other words, this book can relate to me, and it can make me relate to it. If that’s not good writing, I don’t what is, and I think the topic itself only plays into these strengths. And that’s just how I feel after the first chapter. Much like Final Fantasy VII, I suppose this book has a way of drawing you in from the start.
I considered and discarded a number of different ways to discuss this book. This is a book about Black history, Black culture, and the injustices still faced by Black Americans today, and it doesn’t need a white man’s perspective and feelings dragging it down. I will instead simply start with a brief overview of the subject, for those who don’t know. The “Green Book,” named for its original writer, Victor Hugo Green, was essentially a guide on how to travel safely and effectively as a Black American, and was published and updated from the thirties up to the sixties. Remember, this is no trivial issue—Black people were, and still are, far more likely to be arrested or shot at a simple traffic stop, or simply suffer random acts of violence when out in public. Then there was the question of whether they would be able to buy gas and provisions on long trips—most white businesses wouldn’t serve them, after all. The Green Book provides possible solutions, and that, along with its comparatively long history, makes it a fascinating insight into the lives of Black Americans through the twentieth century.
But this is more than a simple historical resource—especially from the perspective of our author, Ms. Candacy Taylor. The Green Book was an important tool for members of her own family, in their time, and she’s even made a mission out of visiting the places it mentioned that are still standing today. They were safe havens in a sea of persecution, once upon a time. Following in the footsteps of one’s ancestors seems to be a universal experience, and I can easily see how this held a significance beyond simple research. Though I am grateful, and I imagine she is, too, that she took this cross-country journey before covid-19 began to spread. As Ms. Taylor writes, she often includes her own personal reflections both on the past and on how things have changed—and not always for the better. The fight for equality, she emphasizes, does not happen in straight lines, but in cycles. Every gain leads to backlash from the racist parts of society we do not wish to acknowledge, of the kind we often see on the streets today. This idea, the idea of cycles, is one I would very much like to see explored further; I can already see aspects of modern day racial discrimination in some of the quotes and policies given in the first chapter. Politicians today may not come out and say that they’re racist, but many people back then didn’t, either. They claim not to deny insurance policies to Black people out of racism—just out of concern for the higher risks Black people always seem to suffer from. The towns don’t have laws on the books forbidding Black people from staying—just crude signs warning them not to stay after sundown, with the implications left unspoken. And if a Black driver is going one mile over the speed limit, the sheriff will argue that this is a legitimate reason to arrest them, even if they would barely glance at a white man committing the same “crime.”
But, while sobering reminders of this kind are necessary, there is some fun to be had here, as well. I genuinely laughed at the excerpt from Victor Green’s advice on “How Not to Grow Old” via reckless driving. And even alongside the charm, and the appeal of delving into a side of history not many people are familiar with, there is something else in this book I expect a reader will enjoy: heroes. The stories here are full of people straining under injustice and pushing back against it in every way they can, for the sake of their livelihoods, their families, and their communities. Ordinary people, trying to make the world a little bit fairer, a little bit brighter, regardless of circumstance or chance of success. Victor Green’s book may have started out as little more than a list of black-owned businesses along the streets of Harlem, but it helped people. It may have even saved lives. That’s the kind of everyday heroism that far too often goes unacknowledged.
As I ponder this particular entry in my series of pompous and self-assured ramblings, I think on the well-worn theme “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In this case, though, I would argue that this book was worthy of a place in our library by virtue of cover alone, given that the cover has the words “Haunted Adirondacks” in pale smudgy letters across the top. We are, after all, the self-described Adirondack Library, and All-Hallows Eve is perhaps our most popular season, with the likes of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson flying off the shelves. Not acquiring this book would be sacrilege in and of itself. However, there is a possibility I would like our readers to consider: that sometimes, we cannot judge a book by the contents of its pages.
The pages, after all, are mere wood pulp and ink; can they really convey the truth? Can they really convey spiritual truth, of the kind that can only be understood within the very heart? What might the writers of this book be keeping from us? Can we really trust them? The portions I’ve read certainly leave many questions unanswered. And just what led them to venture into the mountains in search of unnatural abominations in the first place? A corpse, you know, should be left well enough alone. Could there perhaps be a more…sinister motive at work? Perhaps even this very book is but a small piece of a scheme lesser minds cannot even fathom. Of course, I would never accuse our dear students of having “lesser minds,” but they are young, and not yet tempered by the harsh truths of the world. Maybe the dark forces at play here are counting on just that.
I am a mere library clerk, and while I can say with all certainty what is and is not true on the pages themselves, I cannot say what may be written on the hearts of those around them. Perhaps reading this book will peel back your layers of naivety, and expose harsh truths of this world. Perhaps the line between the real and the unreal will become all too clear to you. Or perhaps you should simply put this book down, unread, and let sleeping words lie.
This book begins by introducing us to a young girl named Anastasia, and describes how our authors visited her and her family at their home in New Guinea. Well, technically it begins with an attempt to explain why the authors will be using American units of measurement as opposed to more sensible metric units, but we’ll focus on Anastasia for now. Aside from her name, which I’m sure has an interesting (if tainted by imperialism) story behind it, she is remarkable in how comfortable she feels in the midst of what would seem like dense wilderness to us. She and her family can navigate the trails of the rainforest as easily as someone born and raised in New York City can navigate the streets and subways. This is how our authors introduce us to their main topic of discussion—the “megaforest.” We all know, or at least, can guess, the importance of trees and forests in protecting the earth from climate change. They are the safest, most reliable carbon sinks we have. Our authors’ corollary, though, is that the largest of our forests contribute far more than the sum of their parts—that a forest left undisturbed is far more valuable than a forest crisscrossed by roads and power lines. Large continuous forests, they demonstrate, have more complex and comprehensive ways of organizing resources, including carbon. The life cycles of different species are more interconnected, larger animals have more room to breathe, and smaller animals have more options. To reduce carbon emissions, we must preserve, not just forests, but undisturbed, continuous forests. And our authors leave no ambiguity as to the scale—they specify that there are only five such forests currently in existence, the smallest of which is still large enough to cover nearly all of New Guinea (and which, again, serves as Anastasia’s home).
Naturally, they present various ways of ensuring this preservation. One of their first solutions, and one of the most interesting, is to simply leave the forests under the control of the people who live there, whose can claim the megaforests as their ancestral home. Here again, they point to Anastasia and her family. Sometimes our authors’ discussions of these people seem to fall into the “noble savage” stereotype, but still, there is much to be said for their argument that indigenous peoples should administer their own forests. Any sane person would prefer their heart transplant be performed by a surgeon with years of experience in heart surgery, so doesn’t it make sense to leave the care of the forest in the hands of people with centuries of experience living there? It reminds me of the Ahwahneechee people, the original inhabitants of Yosemite valley, who would use controlled forest fires to clear undergrowth in the forests centuries before Europeans thought of any such thing. After white Americans expelled them from their homes, the excess brush made forest fires much worse in the long run. More structured solutions include establishing and expanding national parks, and placing more strict regulations on mining and logging. They even mention the intriguing possibility of altering the genes of trees to let them absorb more carbon during photosynthesis, though this is not particularly relevant to their thesis, and they warn us to be skeptical of it.
On the other hand, I also find it interesting to read how they came to these conclusions in the first place. Naturally, every good scientist runs controlled experiments to test their theories, but how does one do this when the test subject is an entire forest? In this case, it seems to have required making use of the system responsible for some of the problems. Some decades ago, in order to study the effects of forest fragmentation, researchers requested that parts of the Brazilian rainforest being torn down for farmland be cut in specific ways to serve as models of smaller forest environments. In other words, researchers created the same kinds of fragmented forests our authors are trying to prevent. Many species within the specific tested areas died out, or left, never to return. And it did lead to valuable data on the importance of continuous forestry for biodiversity. I do not mean to suggest that this somehow taints the data, but there is a certain irony to it—much like when entomologists need to remove insects from the ecosystem, technically diminishing their numbers, just to prove that their numbers are diminishing. Reliable data, it would seem, requires a degree of necessary evil.
However, for those who are worried that there will be too much dry reporting, our authors do make sure to inject some color whenever possible. Indeed, they themselves say that thinking of solutions solely in terms of carbon quantities is a dangerous oversimplification. I would say the opening sections, introducing us to Anastasia, are quite well written. There are a few other gems as well, like calling a researcher “Coe of the boreal forest”—only a few words removed from a Dark Souls boss. One thing I do hope is that our authors continue to emphasize and contextualize the sheer vastness of the ecosystems they describe. I, at least, was in awe at even the brief descriptions of world-shaping, interconnected environments, dwarfing entire nations and weaving overlapping stories with even the tiniest of seeds. That is a marvel of nature greater than anything we could create on our own. That, in and of itself, is worth protecting.
One thing that always defines really good scientific works is the passion of their authors. A person does not spend years on end meticulously studying a highly specific aspect of the natural world unless it truly is the most fascinating thing imaginable to them, and they want to share the magic of it with all humanity. Our author, Mr. Kevin Hunt, is no exception; his love of our closest evolutionary relatives shines through every word. With this in mind, I would say that this is both a general-purpose, introductory text, and a book with an underlying thesis—that thesis being that chimpanzees are worth studying. They are, after all, our “sister species;” we have enough in common that studying them is almost like studying ourselves from an outside perspective. In the preface, Mr. Hunt states his hope that this book will provide a valuable perspective for anyone interested in his favorite species—a group that does include me. Mr. Hunt also says that he will be using simple language whenever possible, to make the book more accessible to a novice primatologist, and so far, I believe he has fulfilled this commitment. I am, above all, a proud nerd, but I also believe that overly specific terminology can hamper the scientific process. It can make it harder for fresh young minds to get into a field, and for scientists from different fields to understand each other’s perspectives. In other words, I am grateful that Mr. Hunt takes a moment to explain what he means by “mental map.”
The first chapter itself takes the form of a series of anecdotes about specific chimpanzees whose behavior offers insights into the nature of their species and their relationship with humans. It’s a good way to add an emotional touch, and get the reader invested, though I do wonder if this use of pathos will die down in later chapters. It’s pretty common, I think, for scientific books to start out with more personal stories before transitioning into more objective analysis for the real meat of the text. In any case, Mr. Hunt does a very good job of tugging at the conscience when describing the conditions our “sister species” suffers under. Chimpanzees are so commonly thought of as intelligent beings that it’s easy to forget how often they are hunted and eaten like any other animal. I admit, my own revulsion at the thought of eating a chimp is somewhere between the disgust of eating a dog and the disgust of eating a human, and so Mr. Hunt’s blunt way of describing it is sobering. There’s one point that Mr. Hunt is especially emphatic about: chimpanzees should never be kept as pets or otherwise raised among humans. I would summarize his arguments here with the premise that chimpanzees are too human-like to be treated like pets without serious ethical concerns, but also too pet-like to be treated like humans without irreconcilable costs. But really, I do Mr. Hunt a disservice by making his point so clinically. More than any other author I’ve read, Mr. Hunt does not mince words or pull punches on this—he delivers the kind of firm moral and professional judgement that’s rare to see in a standard textbook. Clearly, he is a man who knows all too well the kind of damage that can be done by selfish, short-sighted behavior.
Going forward, I am also curious to see what Mr. Hunt thinks of the differences between our two species. Mr. Hunt has alluded to discussing this in the future, but what I’ve read so far has mostly focused on how human-like the chimps are. As I see it, though, it’s well known nowadays that we’re closely related to chimpanzees, DNA only differing by two percent and all that, so I’m more interested in how the average person might overestimate how similar we are. In fact, one moment from that series of stories in the first chapter stood out to me because of this—it described a chimpanzee raised by humans who had lost her favorite toy, but went on to perform exactly the same activities using an imaginary version of said toy. From how it’s described, her behavior remained exactly the same even as her hand held nothing. But when I was a child, losing something would have made me desperate to find it again—I would have been in hysterics. I certainly wouldn’t act as if nothing had changed. Her behavior strikes me as uncannily alien, not uncannily familiar. Then again, perhaps I am simply a human projecting my own feelings onto a creature that is alike yet different from my own kind. Which, I suppose, is a major theme of this book as well.
The first thing I did after I opened this book was check to see what year it was published. The answer is 2019. Obviously, things have changed since then. Indeed, the first few pages have a map of Ukraine, showing the territory occupied by Russia, and I was surprised at how small it was, by the standards of today. As I was reading the first chapter, it was increasingly jarring how unaware our author, Mr. Paul D’Anieri, seemed to be of what was to come. When I got to the line “while the Ukrainian state was always weak, and then nearly collapsed in 2014, the Russian state, after going through a period of dramatic weakness in the 1990s, was gradually strengthened such that by 2014 it had rebuilt a powerful military and could deploy a highly effective ‘hybrid’ war in Ukraine,” I had to pause in my reading to hold back laughter. I don’t think anyone would call Ukrainians “weak” or the Russian army “powerful” and “effective” if they could see what we’re seeing today. It actually prompted me to do something I almost never do—supplement my first chapter reading with outside research. Specifically, I found a video interview with Mr. D’Anieri from last March, and while he doesn’t refute any of his earlier points, he does admit that the Russia’s full-scale invasion and subsequent humiliation were both very unexpected. He also brings up Putin a lot, despite lamenting in this book that authors are always looking for someone to blame. However, impressively, he is still able to tie his thesis in with the current discussion. That thesis is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the one in 2014 from his perspective and presumably the one this very year from ours, did not happen spontaneously. It was the culmination of a series of sociopolitical factors going back to the end of the Cold War.
While I have, as per usual, read only the first chapter, I will still say that I agree with Mr. D’Anieri on general principle. I would argue that every major event in all of world history has been brought about by underlying social forces, to a much greater degree than most people realize. In a democracy, the government, the people in control of the nation, are, by design, controlled by the general public. Why does one candidate get several thousand more votes than another? Ultimately, because of the society that both candidates live in. And if that candidate loses the next election, what’s changed? A thousand people don’t change their minds for no reason, so there must have been some change, subtle or dramatic, in the community they live in. And even if a country is ruled by a dictator, with theoretically absolute power, we can still ask, how did they gain power in the first place? Why them, and not a dictator with different values, who would make different decisions? What does the dictator fear? How might they be removed from power? None of these questions have simple answers—they require context, and the larger the scale, the more elaborate the context. No matter how powerful he thinks he is, Vladimir Putin is just dancing on the strings of those who came before him, just like everyone else.
But while this fairly straightforward point is one I learned a long time ago, reading this book presented a new question for me, perhaps even a new perspective. Namely, at what point do decisions stop being in the hands of the masses, or even in the hands of specific individuals, and start being in the hands of nations themselves? It’s remarkable how often Mr. D’Anieri describes events in terms of Ukraine, Russia, and the United States as entities in and of themselves. Countries are ultimately states of mind; while I am a patriotic man, I admit that I cannot point to any object within the physical world and identify it as “America.” When I look out the window, I may see trees, rocks, shorelines, spacious skies, and amber waves of grain, but these only coalesce into something called “America” because we want them to. This is not to say, though, that countries are meaningless or irrelevant—people are willing to kill and die for them, so even the most cynical of us must factor them into our calculations. But is Mr. D’Anieri correct to say, “viewed by Russia” or “Russia’s insistence on being a great power,” as opposed to, say, “Putin” or “The Russian government?” Perhaps he is. After all, both he and I have argued that even individual decisions are shaped by social and historical context. Maybe Ukraine, Russia, and America can be said to have a kind of collective will, exploited, perhaps, but not fully controlled, by those of ill intent.
On a more personal level, I also find it interesting to read about important historical events that I was alive to witness. One might think it redundant, but I find myself stunned by little of it I understood at the time; reading about the conflicts in Ukraine in retrospect adds a lot more clarity. I suppose at any given moment we can only see so much—over time, we can gather pieces, but we can’t know the whole story until the story is finished, and we have a framework for putting the pieces together. Perhaps this is why so few people notice the underlying factors that Mr. D’Anieri identifies as the true cause of the war.
First, I must say: Our author, Mr. Karl Herrup, knows well the gravity of the issue he’s writing on. He is well aware of the pain and heartbreak caused by his chosen object of study, and he emphasizes it above all else. Before he goes into the technical facts of the disease, he shares stories of people, of families, being utterly broken by it, and I can feel the emotion in his words. One might think that being a scientist, dealing with the world in terms of statistics and formulas, control groups and experimental groups, would numb a person to such visceral matters, but I’ve found it’s the opposite. Mr. Herrup, and his colleagues, have had front-row seats to a hundred tragedies, and probably understand them better than anyone who hasn’t personally gone it themselves. Myself, I sometimes wonder if “Alzheimer’s” might be too clinical a word for it; I rather prefer the nickname “the face stealer.”
But, to the extent that I could put aside the intrinsic horror of the subject matter, I was a tad disappointed that the first chapter does not go into the context behind the title. Mr. Herrup makes his fundamental thesis clear: that researchers of Alzheimer’s have made many mistakes and have largely gone in the wrong direction over the years, but doesn’t elaborate on that in the pages I’ve read so far. He mentions a few times that Alzheimer’s has always had a very loose definition, that the line between simple aging and serious mental problems is blurry, and that because of this Alzheimer’s is hard to properly diagnose, but that is the extent of it. I admit, I had a sort of perverse interest in learning just where the doctors of the past had gone wrong, even beyond the hope of learning from past mistakes. I suppose that in a world as frightening and confounding as ours, there is a certain satisfaction in thinking there is a specific, identifiable reason why a given problem has not been solved. Human beings always seem to find comfort in having someone to blame.
In fact, this segues rather well into the points Mr. Herrup does make in the first chapter. You see, the real meat of the chapter is spent on various studies into the causes of Alzheimer’s, and the conclusions we can and cannot draw from them. Mental and physical exercise, diet, blood sugar and by extension insulin levels, and genetic history all have some correlation, but no concrete cause has ever been proven, beyond perhaps high blood pressure. What I find interesting, though, is that such diverse factors were considered in the first place. Obviously, proper science must be comprehensive, but there’s a note of desperation to it all, and I can’t help but imagine that with a disease as horrible as this, people are just looking for any kind of explanation they can think of. If Alzheimer’s terrifies you, as it would almost anyone, it’s only natural to want some way of preventing it, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. As for whether this leads to determination, or rashness, I suppose we’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out.
Our author, Mr. Douglas Stark, has personally met many African-American basketball legends—and I don’t mean men from Michael Jordan’s generation. I mean to say he was an acquaintance of Earl Lloyd, the first black man to play in the NBA, to name just one example. On their first meeting, Mr. Stark recalls asking himself a most excellent question: “Why were they not in the basketball books I was reading? Why were these names not as well known as Jackie Robinson? Who else out there had I not heard about?” I am neither African American nor a basketball player, but I do know that those things are unconsciously linked in the minds of many white people; perhaps that, in and of itself, offers an answer. The ignorant are so accustomed to thinking of basketball as a Black man’s sport that they can’t imagine Black people were ever blocked from playing it. But they were, and trying to circumvent that block often resulted in rage and degradation towards even the best players. Fame and skill can only do so much to counteract hatred. Perhaps, then, this is a lesson that so-called “positive” stereotypes can cause harm in their own way, such as by plastering over hardship. Regardless, Mr. Stark is here to correct these errors, to provide a solid history of the earliest days of Black basketball, and commemorate the people who made it a reality.
Mr. Stark first introduces us to Bucky Lew, the first professional Black basketball player in history. He played on an otherwise all-white team, all the way back in 1902, and did quite well for himself, despite the racism he was still faced with. Then there is Edwin Bancroft Henderson, the “father of Black basketball,” who, among other things, founded the “Public School Athletic League,” or PSAL. “Using the PSAL, basketball became part of the physical education curriculum in the public school system.” So he’s the one! I promise, I will never forgive him. And “Smiling Bob” Douglas was so involved with the founding of his own team that was both a coach and a player, at the same time! There’s even a bit of history on the Globetrotters (or “Globe Trotters,” as it was once spelled); apparently, there was at one time two teams of Globe Trotters at once. All together, the figures discussed form a kind of web, their lives intersecting and overlapping as basketball and the culture surrounding it begin to take shape. While Mr. Stark says that his goal is merely to retell their stories, and not to analyze the historical developments and social forces at play, I believe there is still a lot of wisdom to be found here. Reading about specific lives and how they were shaped by the societies they lived can be a form of sociology in and of itself.
Mr. Stark quotes directly from a lot of primary sources, which allows us a much keener understanding of these stories. In reading the words of men like Lew and Henderson, you can see both their passion for the game and their frustrations at the persecution they faced. They had the dream, the drive, and the talent to play, but were repeatedly denied the opportunity. However, these primary sources are also good for showing bits of positivity; sports newspapers might speak of a Black player in exactly the same way they would describe a white one, and a veteran of an all-Black team might recount a few games where their white opponents showed them due respect. There is not nearly as much of a line between the bigoted past and the tolerant present as some people think. On a sidenote, it also gave me some insight into turn-of-the-century basketball parlance. I have no idea what “caging the elusive sphere” even means; perhaps the author of that newspaper article was simply as long-winded as I am. On that note, basketball in general seems to have been rather different in those days. Scoring was generally much harder, and the ball is said to have been less “round,” though this isn’t elaborated on. If you are looking to research the finer points of how the game has changed over time, this could be a good jumping-off point.
And if you are not interested in sports whatsoever (a strange feat indeed, for an Adirondacker), think of this instead as the story of people who willingly faced adversity to do what they loved, and found triumph and friendship at the end of a long hard road. People who succeeded through a combination of wit and raw determination even as the odds were stacked against them. People like something out of a sports movie – at a time when movies were still black and white.
I’m always grateful when an author chooses an oft-ignored subject to write on. Be honest, can you name a battle of the U.S. Civil War that took place in New Mexico? No, neither could I. However, what really interests me about our author, Ms. Megan Nelson, is the way in which she teaches such events. Rather than making broad statements on the actions of the massed populace, she focuses on seven specific individuals who were all present for and affected by the fighting in the southwest territories. She even labels each chapter with the person whose perspective the chapter focuses on, much like George R. R. Martin. Obviously, as these are descriptions of the real lives of real people, she cannot recount experiences line-by-line like a novel would, but the details are still magnified in a way you wouldn’t see from more broad-strokes history.
This approach has its advantages. Aside from the general principle that showing history from a more human perspective will get the reader more invested, it compels the author to rely mostly on primary sources. There is already plenty of literature, and general preconceptions, on battles, social movements, market forces, and the like, but with individual lives, one usually has to look to their letters, diaries, interviews, and certificates. Any good student of history knows the value of primary sources—they are, after all, the font from which all other sources emerge. At times, taking a more distant, analytical view of events (a “secondary” perspective, essentially) is necessary—it allows for greater objectivity, a more comprehensive outline of the known facts, and a better understanding of the larger forces at work, not to mention the benefits of hindsight. But there is always at least a small risk that when tying events together, filling in the gaps in the record, we may be using the wrong sort of adhesive. By choosing such a narrow focus, Ms. Nelson minimizes the need for speculation, while also providing real pathos.
However, one thing I must warn you about before you read this book: none of these people are heroes. They are either villains, or simply everyday human beings, doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. It is all too tempting to lionize figures from history, as we would great figures from fiction or folklore, but I implore you not to do so with events such as these. Sufficient argument for this point is provided by the protagonist of the first chapter—one John Baylor, a Confederate lieutenant-colonel, and a self-seeking, opportunistic slave-owner. Between his obscurity and my general rule of not doing external research to keep my focus on the book, I do not know his ultimate fate, but I dearly hope he met an appropriately gruesome end. What is there to be gained from hearing of the triumphs and defeats of such a man? What investment could one have in a story like his? At least the likes of Joffrey Baratheon only oppressed their fellow fictional characters, rather than flesh-and-blood people. I would have much preferred to read a later chapter, such as one of the ones from the perspective of “Juanita,” a Navajo farmer shown to have been trapped in the middle of the conflict, even as sought to protect and provide for her family. But even her story may be difficult to stomach, considering what the outcome is likely to be. While I do not know her fate either, it’s hard to imagine a Navajo woman born at the time, in that place, receiving any kind of happy ending.
I would instead say that the personal stories here should be seen as a microcosm of the world they lived in—and the mindsets that came along with it. John Baylor himself is unworthy of our remembrance, but his actions, his lack of guilt for them, and even the adoration he received at the time can provide insight into the mass delusion that characterized the Confederacy and its supporters. It’s honestly quite surreal to read of Baylor calling the expansion of slavery a just and moral cause, but it was what he and many other people sincerely believed. There was even a newspaper celebrating Baylor as a liberator from the “Abolition Despot.” They’re talking about Honest Abe, in case that wasn’t clear. You know, because the man who opposed slavery was the “despot” in this scenario. Of course, the Union were hardly blameless themselves, at least when it came to their other enemies. It will be interesting, albeit disgusting, to see how white men from both north and south try to rationalize their complicity in one of the greatest genocides in history in the coming chapters. Then again, focusing too much on the crime itself can also diminish the importance of the people subjected to it. “Juanita” and many parts of her culture may be gone, but that means we need to snatch up every lingering scrap of information we can find. For her sake, and the sake of the First Nations still alive today. So, perhaps I can muster some investment in these stories after all.
To clarify, this is not a book about hearing, music, auditory waves, cacophonies, sonic-based weaponry, or any combination of the above. No, when our authors and their colleagues say “noise,” they are instead referring to a trend in human decision making, in which people can make very different decisions based on seemingly arbitrary factors. That is, two people of equal knowledge and experience many give different answers to a question that should have an objectively correct answer, or the same person might give different answers to the same question depending on the time of day. They draw a distinction between noise, and bias, with bias being a pattern of incorrect but consistent decisions, while noise is a pattern of decisions that vary wildly and may, from the outside, seem random.
Thus, our authors’ thesis: while everyone agrees we should reduce bias, we must also make an effort to reduce noise, as noise can create a lot of problems all on its own. Some of the examples they give are different judges handing down very different punishments for the same crime, or different doctors prescribing very different treatments for the same disease. Obviously, these are non-trivial concerns, and our authors spend much of the first chapter going into further detail on the kinds of damage it can do. I was particularly disturbed to hear that judges, on average, give harsher sentences if the local sports team recently lost a game. Of course, I was also already aware that black people receive harsher sentences than white, but our authors identify that as bias, as opposed to noise. And then there is the fact that very few racists admit to being racist, and, for that matter, the fact that very few people would admit to sending someone to prison just because their son missed a field goal, meaning it’s hard to say whether a given judgment is “noise” or “bias.” Our authors have said they will discuss how to tell the difference, but so far they haven’t gone into detail. That said, the solution they suggest for this particular problem, tighter sentencing laws, could potentially solve both of them.
The writing itself is perfectly fine, there’s a kind of firm, decisive nature to it that I like, but at times, they do throw the word “noise” around enough that it’s hard to take seriously—the problem of noise, the dangers of noise, the menace of noise, and the like. For many people, the idea of someone’s main goal being to “reduce noise” brings to mind an old man yelling at his teenage neighbors to turn their music down (although, on a personal note, I’m in the opposite situation: a twenty-five-year-old living above a man likely older than seventy, who plays his music so loud I can barely think, much less fall asleep at a reasonable hour). I suppose you could turn that into a commentary on the disconnect between the expert and the novice--scientists are often stereotyped as using overly long and elaborate terms, but just as often, they use everyday words with a completely different meaning. It’s probably still less confusing this way, though.
But as for the value of their argument, I was inclined to reserve my own judgments, but then I had something of an epiphany. If I were to make the case that noise, as our authors describe it, is a fundamental part of human nature, they would probably agree with me. However, I would also argue that from a certain perspective, all of human behavior is noise. Every decision we make, no matter how logical it may be on the surface, is influenced by minute, underlying variables. Our memories, our emotions, our impressions, all lead to little inclinations that influence us in ways we may not be aware of. And since these are all at least slightly different for every person, all of our decisions are going to be influenced in different ways. To be sure, there are general trends, influenced by basic instincts and social conditions, but we call them “general trends” precisely because they do not apply to literally everyone. A sociological genius may be able to predict with perfect accuracy the outcome of a large group of people making a decision, but one can never say with absolutely certainty what a single person standing in front of them is going to do next. Asking for directions to the train station could theoretically lead to murder. There are seven billion humans out there; statistically, at least one of them would do it.
This brings me to my real point: the rule of law in general is a form of “noise reduction.” Laws that govern human behavior are meant to reduce the range of possible decisions to those that are socially acceptable. To, ideally, make human behavior more consequentially positive, and by extension, more consistent. The measures they propose to reduce noise, the law restricting the range of sentencing, for example, are not new innovations—they are merely a more specific idea on how to restrain people from making undesirable decisions, undesirable decisions which could include the decision to murder. I suppose the broadness of the concept could suggest that our author’s model isn’t as useful as they think, but on the other hand, one really cannot disagree with their general point, that noise reduction is necessary, without being either logically inconsistent or an anarchist.
Having grown up in the Adirondacks, a land without beavers is almost unthinkable to me. I have never actually seen one in the flesh, but I have seen their presence carved across the woods and ponds since before this very library existed, their dams and dens a central aspect of my childhood wonder. As such, I did not know, could not have known until I laid eyes on this book, that there was a time when England had no beavers. Though in retrospect, it would explain why the Redwall series, a staple of my youth, contained no beavers despite featuring numerous other talking forest creatures. Even alongside the fact that otters and mice were living under the same roof (despite otters being to mice roughly what a tyrannosaurus would be to us), and the portrayal of mice as good and rats as evil (when, of course, it is the other way around), the lack of beavers seemed especially perplexing.
But of course, at almost the exact same time I learned of the beaver’s local extinction, I also learned of its revival. It’s a very remarkable achievement, albeit one that I still don’t know all the details of, since while the prologue goes over the beginnings of it, the first chapter focuses on the history of the beaver’s decline. We commonly think of anthropogenic extinction as a modern problem, but in truth, our species has been knowingly or unknowingly exterminating others for centuries. Many of the megafauna of the last ice age likely died out because of us, and the aurochs, a not-uncommon animal in the middle ages, now only exists on the pages of Game of Thrones. In the beaver’s case, not only were their pelts highly sought after, but their scent glands were commonly used as medicine. They actually seem to have worked about half of the time, which I suppose makes it better than most medieval remedies, and certainly better than any of the “holistic” or “essential oil” treatments of today. But, our author, Mr. Derek Gow, is not satisfied with simply explaining “we hunted them until there were no more left.” No, he approaches this task like a historian researching a lost civilization. He delves into everything from the writings of philosophers to the names of old mills, grasping for every last mention of his favorite rodent to build as comprehensive of a record as he can. He even uses the word “archaeology,” although since that’s commonly thought to mean the study of human-made artifacts, it may not apply to his work on studying the ruins of beaver dams. It speaks to their hidden ingenuity that we can study their architecture in the same way we study our own.
Mr. Gow’s writing style in general shows immense passion for his field of study. The foreword and the celebrity reviews in the front (and I do mean celebrity, Judy Dench is on there) put a lot of emphasis on his irreverent wit, but I am much more taken with his deeply emotional, and surprisingly elegant approach to telling this story. This is a man who knows how to tug on the heartstrings—a man who can make you care for an animal just the way he does. It’s more than just compassion, it’s empathy. And when he’s not painting gut-wrenching portraits of the beaver’s suffering, he can also paint vivid, vibrant portraits of the positive impacts they have. He tells of vast, buzzing wetlands, serving as homes to countless beautiful living things. I have not even read any details of Mr. Gow’s conservation efforts, and I am already a firm believer in the trueness of his heart and the justness of his cause. I would also ask for a moment of silence for the “Viking Beavers,” who, while only existing in the narrative for less than a sentence before their deaths, will forever live on in our hearts.
But if I may deviate from simply discussing the first chapter, I think we should all consider the magnitude of the general subject matter. A species, a “keystone” species, as they’re called, disappeared, from an entire island, but now it’s coming back. If we can do that with beavers, even after all the combined factors that worked towards wiping them out, what other species could we do that with? Now, granted, beavers are a hardier and more numerous species than most, but if they really are a keystone species, a species that can prop up ecosystems all on its own, this may yet restore more ecologically sensitive creatures, too. As mentioned, the great dying of beavers happened hundreds of years ago; maybe the species we have made extinct in the modern day can be revived in another few hundred years. We can always hope for it, however long it may take. And perhaps, though its author has now passed on, we can still imagine that beavers one day returned to Redwall Abbey, as well.
Is there any pursuit more noble than space travel? I’m sure that many people would argue, quite logically, that the answer is yes, but on the most innocent, emotional level, I can’t think of any greater purpose than breaking the chains that keep us from the wider universe. For ten-thousand years, our world has been alone, isolated, unable to reach out except with its gravity well and radio waves—but now, thanks to us, there are pieces of the earth on other planets. Think about that. For all we know, we could be the only planet in the universe to knowingly and deliberately extend out into other parts of the universe, however small the distances may be at the moment. After ten thousand years confined to one world, we now have the potential to walk on others. My point is, Mars should be in our sights as we try to move forward as a species, which is why this book seemed to be calling me.
However, the first chapter, appropriately titled “Communion with Mars,” has a surprising lack of robots and rockets. Instead, our author, Mr. Stephen O’Meara, spends the first chapter discussing the history of human observations of Mars, all the way back to before the written word. I suppose when the book is called “Mars” it really should provide a comprehensive account of our sandy red neighbor, which would include archaeological and theological perspectives. That said, Mr. O’Meara is first and foremost an astronomer, so his knowledge in these areas has a few blind spots (at one point, he calls the Egyptian god Horus a sun god, which is an oversimplification). Still, it is both interesting and strangely off-putting to see various trends rise and fall based only on the apparent motions of a small red dot. I do not mean to belittle the people of the past—they were only working from what they had to go on—but it’s striking how disconnected their perspective is from our own. To many people of ancient times, Mars was a mythological symbol or celestial being, and the proper science around it was too often tainted by astrology. As I’ve said, despite my own romantic feelings toward it, I see Mars primarily as a symbol of human achievement, not as some kind of fortune teller. I wonder if we can mark any specific point in time as the one where we as a species pierced the veil—where the planets stopped being enigmas in the heavens and became the solar system’s biggest geological formations, things we could study and even visit one day.
With that in mind, I suppose even the superstitions of the past can serve as a powerful and positive symbol of progress. Where once we believed that Mars could decide our fate, now our machines are walking on its surface. We have conquered the fears of the past. I know some people say the idea of “progress” reflects a distorted view of history, say that there is never any guarantee for human development to go in anything like a positive direction, but our relationship with Mars may be evidence to the contrary. In fact, I would say our understanding of Mars can kindle not only a belief in progress but a belief in destiny. Not the kind of destiny espoused by the astrologers, of course, but the kind of destiny driven by human nature itself. We have always sought to expand, to overcome, to conquer--and while this has caused immense suffering in the past, Mars, if nothing else, has no native inhabitants to abuse and no native forests to burn. It may be the most moral conquest imaginable. And what would be more fitting than to conquer something that we once believed ruled over us? The planets do not control our fate—they are the fate that we make for ourselves.
It took me a while to figure out the exact thesis for this one. Our author, Ms. Heather Murray, goes into a lot of detail on the various debates and mindsets that have characterized psychiatric institutions over the years, but she rarely seems to take sides on them. One might be tempted to think that there is no thesis, as such, that this book was only ever meant as an overview of psychiatric institutions and their history, and indeed, most of the discussions are more informative than didactic. However, I would say that Ms. Murray does have a point to make beyond simple education—that being that the “asylums” she writes on, despite their seemingly isolation from society, remain an integral part of it. Life and perception inside mental hospitals are still very much influenced by broader trends that have come and gone throughout history, and broader society is also influenced by trends and attitudes within mental hospitals. The “asylum” may be a filter, but it is not an impenetrable wall. How might the society they lived in have affected how doctors saw their patients? How might it have affected how patients saw themselves? I am very much a believer in the trustworthiness of experts. To trust one’s gut feeling over the advice of their doctor is no wiser than to trust one’s gut feeling over the advice of their fire marshal on the subject of using gasoline as a stain remover. However, the fact remains, experts are neither all-knowing gods nor impartial machines; they are human beings, with all the flaws and biases of human beings. The societies they live in influence them just like anyone else. Didn’t the astronomers of the past believe the Earth was the center of the universe? Didn’t the psychologists of the past consider homosexuality to be a mental illness (Which, I would hope, we all know to be completely untrue)? Thus, I think this book serves as a reminder to all of us, for many of us are prospective scientists ourselves, not to think too highly of ourselves, or to accept our own assumptions uncritically, for we are as susceptible as the asylum keepers of yore.
But, I should provide specific examples, just as Ms. Murray herself does. The first chapter is spent on the mental asylums of the “interwar” period, between World Wars One and Two. As per the aforementioned thesis, Ms. Murray discusses how the Victorian sensibilities of previous psychologists were shaken by World War One, how post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the war both increased awareness of mental illness, and dampened hopes that it could be “cured.” It added up to a sense of melancholy and resignation—a mindset of simply caring for patients in perpetuity rather than actually trying to help them function in the wider world. Ms. Murray writes at length of the “automaton” patient, the archetype of an asylum patient who can carry out their daily routine within the hospital without complaint, but speaks little and show little emotion as a consequence of their isolation. At times, one can see the disgust she feels for this mindset. It isn’t obvious, but one can feel the stern judgment towards these physicians of the past, treating those under their care like machines—giving them polishing and oiling, but not empathy. However, there are glimpses of a more positive side as well. Not all patients of the time were miserable, and the sense of isolation could lead to a sense of peace and contemplation. Ms. Murray, like any good historian, provides primary sources—letters to and from patients at asylums and their families, and there really is a diversity of opinions and circumstances. Hope and despair seem to coexist everywhere. At the very least, in my own flawed, incomplete understanding, it was better than what came afterward.
Thus far, Ms. Murray has only discussed the “automaton” mindset of the thirties, but she has, at times, alluded to the later eras of psychiatry, that will presumably be discussed in later chapters. After World War II, there seems to have been another shift in attitude among both the general public and the psychiatric community. Instead of merely maintaining their patients’ living situations, doctors attempted to improve them, seemingly with a renewed optimism. They even came to believe that the mentally ill could be “cured.” Ah, but what forms did these cures take? Electrocution, hallucinogens, lobotomies! Many of them administered to children! The most prestigious psychiatric institutions of the fifties and sixties elevated men who could have studied alongside Joseph Mengele! If you would like specifics, I suggest you research the Montreal Experiments, or the Judge Rotenberg Center, which continues to electrocute children to this day. I am a believer in progress. But this book may well prove all on its own that progress is not a guarantee. Apparently, some time in between women gaining the right to vote and black people gaining the right to sit at the front of buses, it was decided that torturing the neuroatypical was preferrable to leaving them alone.
What, then, is the solution? So far as I can tell, none of the “asylum ways of seeing” we as a society have tried have produced particularly promising results. And yet, mental hospitals of some kind will always be necessary. Make no mistake, mental illness cannot be “cured.” A person is who they are because of their mind—every part of it. One cannot completely rid themselves of schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder any more than one can rid themselves of their love of chocolate. There will always be people who, through no fault of their own, need long-term help from trained professionals. No one should have to face their mental demons alone. But, if Ms. Murray is to be believed, our “asylum ways of seeing” can change with the times, and that means they can change for the better. So, let’s change the society, and change the asylums along with it! We owe it to our friends, our families, and ourselves as well. Sooner or later, we’re all going to need someone to lean on.
I did not think a book about vanilla could shock me. I really didn’t. Yet here I sit, utterly dumbfounded. Because, well, as I was reading this book, this book read me. It took all my expectations, all my hidden assumptions and deep-rooted instincts, and laid them bare before my eyes. It does this, not only by delving into the history and properties of such a familiar cooking ingredient to a degree most wouldn’t conceive of, but also by highlighting the specific implications of that very premise! I, like everyone reading this, grew up with vanilla, accepted vanilla as an underlying part of life, to the point that I never questioned vanilla! I thought I knew vanilla, despite knowing nothing, and that’s exactly what this book is counting on! Our author, Ms. Rosa Abreu-Runkel, knows that vanilla is such a common part of our lives that we never actually think about what it is or where it came from, and she exploits that to draw us in! Be honest, how many of you actually thought of vanilla as a plant? How many of you thought of it as an orchid? Simply by framing vanilla in those terms, she opens up dimensions I didn’t know existed! She adds enough context to the familiar to make it unfamiliar, and in doing so, makes it wondrous. And along the way, she tells us exactly what she’s doing and how it will affect us, and we still fall into it exactly as she said we would! In her own words, “By understanding the complex yet largely untold story of a thing as seemingly simple as vanilla, you can add value to your own interactions with it and watch the mundanity melt away.” It’s true! It’s all true!
Forgive me, I admit that this may be a stronger emotional reaction than the situation warrants. It’s just not every day that an author can anticipate my reactions to their own work and weave it so smoothly into their own thesis. Regardless, there is indeed a lot of interesting information about vanilla in here. As mentioned, it’s made from the pods of a plant, and said plant has a surprisingly large number of varieties grown in many different parts of the world. I have a hard time appreciating the differences myself, but I imagine a master chef could take full advantage of any subtle distinctions in flavoring. There are also many different methods of processing them into the extract we’re more familiar with, methods with surprisingly deep roots in the cultures that employ them. It’s not really the kind of sterile, assembly-line style of creation that we’ve come to expect from the modern world, at least not entirely. Soaking, sun-drying, and smashing still have their place in the supply chain. Perhaps the variety of treatments the beans receive can also produce variations in the taste; one never knows exactly what kind of effect these things have. After all, who would have guessed that exposing cheese to applewood smoke would create such a distinct flavor?
As for the writing style, I’ve probably already made clear the surprising emotional impact it’s had on me. Ms. Abreu-Runkel has an elegant way of describing her favorite ingredient, and the time and care that’s gone into cultivating it, and it makes for a book that’s more vivid and poetic than it has any right to be. It even taught me a new word: “gustatory!” Our author also draws on her own childhood memories and general personal stake in the subject for a stronger sense of pathos. Granted, I think many of us associate vanilla with the warm fondness of cooking with our families, but Ms. Abreu-Runkel has gone above and beyond in the passion and inspiration she draws from it. Whatever publisher began this series of books on edible substances, they clearly chose the right author for this one. That said, there is one fact about vanilla that she either doesn’t know, or has neglected to mention thus far, so I suppose the shoe is on the other foot now that I get to be the one to reveal it to you—the word “vanilla” is in fact derived from the word “vagina.”
The opioid crisis is one of those massive, soul-shaking events that send out so many shockwaves it would be impossible for me not to be aware of it, but is also so twisted and tangled that I’ve never been able to make any sense of it. Despite being well within my lifetime, and, to an extent, continuing to this day, my understanding of it has always vague, at best. In my defense, its inception occurred before I was really old enough to understand what a pharmacy was, much less what an opioid was. The events of this book, specifically, began in 2005, when I was eight, and the problem had already existed for a good while before then. It just took until my adulthood for the general public to realize what was actually going on. Note, though, that I said “the general public;” individuals are another matter entirely. There is, for example, our author, Mr. Eric Eyre, a journalist best known for his investigations of this very epidemic, who has already exposed many of the misdeeds of our country’s pharmaceutical executives. Mr. Eyre toots his own horn a few times in the preface, which I suppose he’s earned, considering his immense public service, but his own exploits are not actually the focus of this book. Mr. Eyre is going further back this time, to the original catalyst of our recent reckoning, the “Death in Mud Lick” that the title refers to.
The book is very much structured as a story. The first chapter introduces us to Debbie Preece, the woman whose unfortunate brother suffered the aforementioned death, and is told almost entirely from her perspective. It’s rare for any real-life event to have a “protagonist,” but Ms. Preece arguably qualifies. She was perhaps the first person to take up arms against this sea of opioid-dependent troubles and any measure of justice we see at the end of it will in part be thanks to her. I actually decided to look up a picture of her when I started reading, to have a face to put to the person we were following, but I needn’t have bothered. Just a few pages in, Mr. Eyre gives her a description, in much the same way a novelist might describe a character. The whole thing rather reminds of the Pelican Brief, honestly, though there are several caveats to that.
The first is the underlying mundanity of it all. There is a large-scale conspiracy here, to be sure, but it is simply a conspiracy to sell drugs, make money, and not get caught, not to betray, assassinate, or usurp. The greed, secrecy, corruption, and even scope of the crimes are what you would expect from fiction, but there is no thrill or tension beyond the hope that those responsible might face justice someday. According to the first chapter, Ms. Preece considered the idea that her brother may have been murdered as part of some coverup, but no, he died of complications from opioids. The corporate curs selling the drugs are still very much the ones to blame, but the death itself is the kind we’re more likely to see here in the real world. This brings me to the next, more important distinction—that these are real people, with real lives. It’s all well and good for John Grisham to develop his themes through tragedies that sprung from his imagination, but one must tread carefully when retelling the stories pain and loss that people have really gone through. To be clear, I do not mean this as an aspersion against Mr. Eyre; his goal here is help the Preece family find justice, and to ensure that their struggles will not be forgotten. Still, as a whole we must be careful that in shining a light on the general issue, we do not marginalize the people it has hurt the most. I myself feel a bit of discomfort writing of Ms. Preece and her brother in such abstract terms; this is, after all, their story, not mine. At the same time, though, I believe framing it as a story is better than simply listing the facts and summarizing the data. We are all humans, not machines, and reading about a person’s own emotions and experiences will always make us care more than a cold, distant perspective ever would. And this is something we need to care about.
I am not stupid enough to believe I have a solution to this crisis of lies, greed, and heartbreak that continues to consume our nation. Truth be told, we were supposed to have already solved the problem before it even happened. Weren’t there regulations requiring the opioids be tested before being released to the public? Weren’t there doctors who should have known better than to prescribe them? Weren’t there pharmacists who should have known better than to sell them? Weren’t there police who should have investigated? Ah, but none of them cared. There were a thousand little safeguards that should have protected Bull Preece, but each and every one of them was compromised by human error—human greed. But, we are human too, and if no one else will care, I suppose it falls to us. If you need any further reason, you can find it right here on these pages—and in the people whose lives they commemorate.
I love evolution, and I love owls. No, really. Evolution, aside from being the reason I exist, is a story in and of itself, full of twists and turns, triumphs and failures, stretching all the way from our world to the world as it was at the beginning of time. It can produce incredibly complex tools and systems, yet always retains an element of imperfection—but that imperfection just makes it more beautiful. It is random variations, shaped by land itself into fascinating new forms of life. And then there are owls, which are just plain cool. They’re the stealth bombers of the animal kingdom! Silent, predatory, and equipped with a sophisticated network of sensors that allow them to select and eliminate targets in an instant. And they’re also cute. So, naturally, I’m quite happy to be writing about this book.
However, I should be clear, this is specifically a book about barn owls. Actually, to be even clearer, it’s a book about owls from the genus Tyto, which include barn owls, grass owls, masked owls, and sooty owls (all of which are closely related). For the sake of convenience, I’m just going to call them all barn owls unless what I’m saying only applies to one of the other kinds. Regardless, our author, Mr. Alexandre Roulin, goes into extensive detail on the commonalities and differences of the individual species. Barn owls exist on every continent (except Antarctica, a qualifier that always needs to be added to the end of that kind of claim), and they’ve had plenty of time and opportunity to adapt and specialize. Europe, East Asia, and America all have their own kinds of barn owl, but that’s just the beginning. Sometimes, a pair of distinct species may be separated by merely a sea, rather than an ocean; even specific island chains may have a unique variant. It would seem that Darwin needn’t have limited himself to studying finches; the owls of the Pacific may have proven his point just as effectively. Though, of course, there is still debate and uncertainty among specialists over what is and is not a separate species. I find that’s a recurring theme in books I’ve read that were written by biologists.
Mr. Roulin specializes in plumage, and writes at length on how the coloration of owls varies depending on region and environment (and he certainly wasn’t finished by the time I left him; he has a whole chapter about it later). However, my favorite bits of information to read about were the habits and survival techniques used by the different species, and how their physical traits have evolved in turn to fit those strategies. I never would have guessed that grass owls were so-called because they actually make their nests in the grass, nor that many of them have developed larger bodies and longer legs to allow them to survive more easily on the ground. At the same time, I do find myself wondering whether some of the more interesting traits described are exclusive to barn owls, or if they exist among other species. I refer to the statements that owls can rotate their heads a remarkable number of degrees, their wings are completely silent, the asymmetrical feathers on their faces help with their hearing, and so forth. My trouble is, I’m still very much an amateur on owl studies, so while I’ve heard many claims made about owls, I’ve never heard from reputable sources whether they are definitively, universally true, or whether they only apply to the more well-known owls. As this is a book exclusively about the more well-known owls, and never bothers to mention whether they share a given trait with those outside their genus, I remain at a loss.
That said, I would like to discuss the real implications of how well-known barn owls are. Some, I imagine, might find them boring, generic. What could they have to offer us compared to the snowy owl, the eagle owl, the horned owl? Even the name—what excitement could one expect from a barn, except perhaps a hay fire? Ah, but the same thing that makes them seem “boring” also proves how capable and well-adapted they really are. They are the most common type of owl—which would suggest that they are also the most resilient type of owl. Where other owls may only exist in a few corners of the world, these can survive anywhere. If they are “boring,” it is only because they have so far outstripped their competition that we have grown bored with their winning. And they do indeed often make their nests in barns, and in human-made structures in general—meaning they are able to live closer than almost anyone else to the most destructive creatures on earth. Mr. Roulin attributes their resilience to their flexibility. They will lay small or large numbers of eggs, depending on whether food is scarce or plentiful, and their wide variety of plumage colors (again, Mr. Roulin’s favorite topic) allow them to get a measure of camouflage almost anywhere. However, I must also repeat Mr. Roulin’s most important point—the barn owl is still not invincible. They are susceptible to climate change and habitat destruction, no matter how hardy they’ve been up to this point; they have resisted better than most species, but there’s only so much they can take. It will be interesting, though hardly enjoyable, to observe how they and other ubiquitous species adapt going forward—whether one well-tested method for survival can withstand even greater strain. Still, this book can hopefully give us a better idea of how to protect them—and why they’re worth protecting.
This book is a little bit different from the ones I’ve looked into so far. Rather than having a single author or even a single team of authors, with a single subject and a single line of discussion, this is a series of essays written by a wide variety of experts, tackling many different questions that fall under the umbrella of, well, political philosophy in a pandemic. One might imagine that some of the points made could even contradict each other, though I don’t mean this as a slight against the book or the writers themselves. Every scientist has at least a slightly different opinion on their issues of study, and oftentimes the “correct” answer can’t be found without a synthesis of ideas. Regardless, I may not be able to give you the full breadth of topics discussed within these pages using only the first chapter, but these are called “First-Chapter Findings” and reading more than one chapter would set a very dangerous precedent. That said, the book could be said to have a general theme connecting every given perspective: that the recent pandemic has exposed and exacerbated already existing social and political problems. The very same problems that these authors have dedicated their careers to studying, in fact. Our editors do acknowledge that tragedies should not be exploited for political gain, but point out that the pandemic has already irreparably damaged the status quo. Thus, one way or another, we will have to rebuild, so we may as well make sure we fix some of the underlying problems along the way. As they put it, “A natural question, explored in a number of chapters, is whether these positive trends will continue beyond the crisis. And if not, why not—since we have already seen what is achievable?”
The book begins with a full list of contributors, most of whom have an academic background in philosophy, ethics, or, of course, political science, and many of whom have done a lot of work in the field of human rights. However, the one who intrigues me the most is Lovro Savić, a doctoral researcher from Green Templeton College, because his research is said to include medical ethics specifically. Surprisingly few of our authors have real, hands-on medical experience despite the book’s subject matter, and none of them are professional doctors, nurses, or medical researchers. I don’t mean to say they’re underqualified; talking about the sociopolitical implications of the disease doesn’t necessarily require an understanding of its cellular structure. But I would very much like to hear a practicing doctor’s (or other medical professional’s) opinion on these sociopolitical implications as well. At least in my experience, doctors tend to dislike being dragged into political discussions—they prefer to keep their field pure and untainted by partisan squabbling. This is a reasonable thing to want, but at this point it seems well out of reach. How many people already believe that one administration or another bears sole responsibility for the pandemic? How many politicians have already cozied up to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists for a few extra votes? With this in mind, I think we could all benefit from a doctor’s account of the already-underway politicization of their profession, and how the medical community itself could “build back better” from the crisis. For the record, Mr. Savić’s specific chapter is about the need for restraint in public discussion, the need for both the average person and the expert to weigh their thoughts and words carefully when deliberating on such a dangerous topic. So, it could potentially touch on some of the topics I’ve considered.
But I digress. The ideas I’ve seen so far from our authors and editors are powerful ones in and of themselves. There is, for example, a discussion of the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on minority groups. In particular, it has taught me the phrase, “corrosive disadvantage,” defined as “where deficits in one domain (e.g. lack of money) lead to deficits in another (e.g. worsened health).” It’s a very important concept to understand, I think, especially since, in a broad sense, it can apply to just about every problem faced by marginalized groups. Racism leads to racist laws, racist laws lead to both legal and economic inequality, which in turn lead to housing inequality, and health inequality, and so forth. And, in a sense, I think that white people who ignore, dismiss, or downplay the damage done by the pandemic can be described as racist, considering they find a disaster less tragic when it has less of an effect on people who look like them. Other chapters relate to topics like the role of government in advising the public and, importantly, the underestimation of the importance of social needs. Humans evolved as social animals, after all; isolation creates an irrational, unconscious dissonance that slowly wears us down.
Despite the incisive points our authors promise to make, though, I find myself, as I so often do, wondering how many people they’ll actually reach. After all, it’s been hard enough getting the general public to accept even the most basic facts about the pandemic they themselves remain embroiled in. Right now, a non-trivial percentage of the population believes that vaccines are a satanic murder plot—how are they supposed to understand sociopolitical implications when they can’t even understand common sense? I fear that our authors, like many philosophers, have devoted so much of their expertise to what we should do that they haven’t stopped to consider what we can do. Still, it is remarkable that so many people have come up with so many grand ideas in response to this crisis, and ideas do have value in and of themselves. Perhaps a veritable flood of ideas is what we need, enough to drown out the insanity that this disease has wrought. If blue-skying really is all we can do, maybe we just need to blue-sky until the sky falls.
The very first page of this book makes an interesting point: The notion of the “end of the world” has, within the past few hundred years, gone from an abstract, fantastical, philosophical, and frightening mystery to a well-understood scientific phenomenon. Through simple physical and astronomical observations, along with appropriate mathematical calculations, our race has determined beyond a reasonable doubt when and how the earth will be destroyed. It is no longer an apocalyptic prophecy. It is settled science. That is an impressive achievement in and of itself, especially since our scientists have apparently become so bored with studying the literal end of the world that they have moved on to studying the end of the entire universe. I doubt the people who wrote of beasts and horsemen in ancient times could have predicted that, though I suppose to them, the world and the universe would have seemed effectively synonymous. In their defense, the idea that the tiny points of light in the sky are in fact hundreds of times larger than what you’re standing on isn’t the most obvious one. As for the end of the universe itself, that isn’t quite settled science, though experts have narrowed down the possibilities considerably. And those possibilities are the main interest of our author, Ms. Katie Mack (presumably no relation to Miss Mary Mack, a figure of whom I have some very unpleasant childhood memories).
That said, I have little to say of these scientifically feasible apocalypses (and yes, Ms. Mack, that is the correct plural). They are fascinating, to be sure, but Ms. Mack explains them better than I would, and in any case she does not go into extensive detail on them until the later chapter. I would instead like to discuss the details this book reveals about the physical sciences in general. For one thing, it turns out the exact meaning of “cosmologist” varies depending on the field and the context, though Ms. Mack seems to every kind. Ms. Mack also makes an interesting point about the value of astrophysics to the larger body of physics as a whole. Oftentimes, fundamental forces and their properties can only be discovered through observations of stellar bodies—we wouldn’t know about the properties of gravity without observing other planets, for example. Some astronomical phenomena can serve as edge cases, of sorts, being so massive and having so great an impact that natural forces interact with each other in unusual ways. This can give us deeper insight into what’s actually going on beyond what we can observe. I would say it’s also worth remembering that studying things from a distance sometimes just gives a more complete picture. It is, after all, hard to observe every facet of something while you’re standing on it. I always value these kinds of lessons, the kinds that give you a glimpse of the real-world scientific process and the tools and mindsets of practicing scientists. Many of our students are budding scientists themselves, after all, and I appreciate the taste of their future careers (and future achievements) books like this can give them.
In addition to the science behind her subject matter, Ms. Mack also touches on its emotional and philosophical implications. And, to be sure, it is a morbid subject, but Ms. Mack’s writing style can often mitigate that. She has an irreverent, almost whimsical tone throughout the whole discussion that will put a smile on one’s face even despite the smashing, ripping, and crunching of stars. Despite the intense experimentation and theorizing she’s undertaken throughout her career, she retains the childlike wonder that comes with looking up at the stars, as many scientists seem to. As demonstrated in just about every book I read, science demands passion, no matter how much math is involved along the way. And in a way, I can understand why someone might be able to retain a positive attitude in the face of total annihilation. Really, I think just about everyone who knows even the slightest bit of astrophysics (and thus, knows the universe is going to end some day), has had to reckon with it in some way or another. I imagine we all have our own personal coping strategies; personally, I had to restrain myself from making this whole entry a tangent on my thoughts about our finite existence. For now, though, I will simply say that no matter what else happens, it is a fact that you existed. Even when all turns to dust and memory is a memory, it will still be a fact that you existed, and you were special in your own. Our species was special, in its own way. Even if it is eventually proven that there is, in fact, no possible chance of our species surviving to the end time, it still means our species was smart enough to prove that.