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Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History – Bill Schutt

Published July 16, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it. A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism–the role it plays in evolution as well as human history–is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we’ve come to accept as fact.

In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural Historyzoologist Bill Schutt sets the record straight, debunking common myths and investigating our new understanding of cannibalism’s role in biology, anthropology, and history in the most fascinating account yet written on this complex topic. Schutt takes readers from Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, where he wades through ponds full of tadpoles devouring their siblings, to the Sierra Nevadas, where he joins researchers who are shedding new light on what happened to the Donner Party–the most infamous episode of cannibalism in American history. He even meets with an expert on the preparation and consumption of human placenta (and, yes, it goes well with Chianti).

Bringing together the latest cutting-edge science, Schutt answers questions such as why some amphibians consume their mother’s skin; why certain insects bite the heads off their partners after sex; why, up until the end of the twentieth century, Europeans regularly ate human body parts as medical curatives; and how cannibalism might be linked to the extinction of the Neanderthals. He takes us into the future as well, investigating whether, as climate change causes famine, disease, and overcrowding, we may see more outbreaks of cannibalism in many more species–including our own.

Cannibalism places a perfectly natural occurrence into a vital new context and invites us to explore why it both enthralls and repels us.

And now for something a bit different…

Hello everyone and welcome to a very special review on my blog. In April, I had the pleasure of doing my first buddy reads with Stuart from Always Trust In Books where we read the YA novel Scythe, the first in a fantastic new series. Check out my review HERE and Stuart’s review HERE. We both had a great time doing it and decided for our next buddy read to read something a bit different – in this case, a popular science book all about cannibalism. I realise I might have lost some readers right now, haven’t I?!

Stuart and I ummed and aaahed for a little bit about how we wanted to review this book – individually or more of a collaboration and he had the brilliant idea of capturing our Twitter chat and then including it as part of our review. So please find here before our thoughts and feelings about Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History at the moment of reading it. If you’re worried about spoilers, never fear! Stuart and I deliberately kept the juicier parts of the narrative very vague so if you haven’t read this yet, no big secrets are given away.

What did WE think?:

Beth: Okay I’ve just finished Chapter Five, let me know your thoughts whenever you’re ready! 🤔🤗

Stuart: I’ve been looking forward to teaming up with you again for a read and here we are! What a topic for discussion we have ourselves, cannibalism. The first 5 chapters were both immensely graphic and incredibly informative. I am enjoying Bill Schutt’s writing style, though it is slightly information dense, and his insights into insect, fish and mammal cannibalism was fascinating if not slightly hard to process. I will never look at Cupid the same again. How are you finding this read?

Beth: I’m really enjoying it Stuart, as you say it’s incredibly informative and as a huge animal lover this was always going to be an interesting read for me. It did take me about two or three chapters to really get into it and get used to his writing style but now I feel fully invested. I’m loving finding out facts I wasn’t aware of about cannibalism in the natural world – I mean the dedication of that mother spider was crazy wasn’t it? Are you enjoying the illustrations?

Stuart: The illustrations are great if not a little unsettling 😂. Yeah I know what you mean about getting into Schutt’s rhythm. I was surprised how common cannibalism is in the wild and what it truly takes for animals and creatures to cross that line. Reading about insects and animals makes me dread when Schutt gets to the humanity sections!

Beth: Very unsettling! I did like the part about the acrobat redback spider though even if he comes to quite a sticky end. 😕 There is a dark humour throughout which I am appreciating as well!

Stuart: I think we are going to need that dark humour for the coming chapters! This has to be the most surprising non-fiction read I have ever read. I wonder what other secrets Schutt has in store for us. He brings up many good points about the idea of cannibalism and what actually constitutes cannibalistic behaviour. I am glad that Schutt is a hands on scientist because I don’t think this book would have been as impacting if he was just reiterating previous research.

Beth: Well, we’ve got some interesting chapters coming up including one on dinosaurs and one on Neanderthals! I’m looking forward to what’s coming next – shall we read onto the end of Chapter Ten?

Stuart: Sounds good. Should be there by tomorrow morning. Chat to you then 😁

Beth: 👍🏻

Chapter 10

Stuart: I have just finished chapter 10 and ready to discuss you are 😁.

Beth: Okay I’m ready! Sorry, had an interview today and was studying. Well that was an interesting few chapters! I have to say I didn’t enjoy them quite as much as the previous five but I was intrigued to read about Colombus and his determination to label all indigenous people cannibals!

Stuart: Yeah it is hard to discern what is sensationalism and what is genuine cannibalism. I am glad the spirit of the book is that cannibalism is only an animals/humans last resort of survival. Painting the Carib’s as monsters to justify wiping them out is brutal and it has distorted our view on other cultures still to this day. I was fascinated by how far back evidence of cannibalism in nature goes.

Beth: I can’t even imagine how they had the gall to paint them as monsters with one eye or a tail etc?! It was quite a sobering fact to think of the amount of the indigenous population has been decimated due to invasion, direct or indirect factors! 😱

Stuart: Considering there is very little evidence to suggest any ritualistic cannibalism present in those communities and cultures other than in times of mourning or survival. Definitely not savage, mindless and evil behaviour. It goes to show how important it is to stick with the facts as false evidence can lead to a lot of suffering! Schutt has done a great job compiling and explaining the history of cannibalism. I hope we get more up to date insights in the coming chapters.

Beth: I completely agree. As the subtitle “A Perfectly Natural History,” suggests it seems like it’s only resorted to when necessary or as part of a ritual of a tribe for dealing with dead bodies rather than burying them as they find burial abhorrent. Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong if they had their own religious/spiritual reasons for it?

Stuart: Reading ahead a little I can see a couple of natural western practices that involve cannibalism in certain forms so it is about to get even more intriguing. Meet back at chapter 15?

Beth: 👍🏻

Chapter 15

Beth: Hi Stuart, ready whenever you are. 😁

Stuart: I am ready too 😁 chapters 11-15 are, in my opinion, the strongest so far. What do you think?

Beth: Absolutely. I read it all in one evening yesterday as I’ve been so busy and it was so interesting I flew through it. The chapter about the Donner Party was fascinating and I also loved the eating people is good/bad chapters! I particularly enjoyed the small part on cannibalism in fairy tales and cannibalism in China. What did you think about the filial piety and honouring your parents?? 😱

Stuart: Each chapter delved into the thought, struggle and methodology behind potentially eating another human being. It really did turn my stomach but it was interesting to see humanity’s recent dealings with cannibalism. The Donner Party showed the true circumstances that a person may cross that line. I guess different cultures have to show their love/mourn their losses in different ways 😯

Beth: Yes and if it’s the option of survival where food is scarce, what else where they going to do? I was quite interested about the references to cannibalism in the Bible, I was raised Catholic (lapsed now!) but I remember being told communion was Christ’s body and blood. Of course I didn’t even connect it back then with cannibalism. 😳

Beth: Ready to read until the end? 🤗

Stuart: Absolutely! I am impressed with Schutt’s work and I am hoping he has saved the best for last 😁

The End

Beth: Hey Stuart, ready whenever you are! 😁

Stuart: I am ready 😃. What did you think of the last lot of chapters?

Beth: Yaay! Well, those were some very interesting chapters indeed! He certainly knows how to go from strength to strength in his book. I couldn’t even tell you what my favourite topic was, he covered so much but I found medicinal cannibalism kind of horrifying! 😳

Stuart: I had a hard time with the last sections of this book. You’re right that the medical cannibalism part was weird and I don’t think mummy booze would catch on but I thought the rest of the chapters didn’t go down so well. I know that Kuru and BSE may have links to cannibalism but I felt like I was reading a different book!

Beth: That’s interesting 🤔 I did feel like I was skimming a few chunks right near the end, I’m not sure why. The placenta chapter was a bit odd wasn’t it?

Beth: How did you feel like you were reading a different book?

Stuart: The placenta section was strange but I have come across the placenta decision in other NF books so it wasn’t too surprising. I thought that the last couple of chapters changed the direction of Schutt’s momentum so much that I also found myself skimming and a little disappointed.

Beth: That’s a shame. I think I *enjoyed* if that’s the right phrase the medicinal and the placenta chapters and was intrigued by cannibalism in the Pacific Islands but it did feel a bit “samey” when he started talking about kuru and CJD. It suddenly got a bit dry which was strange as the majority of the other chapters were so strong!

Stuart: It was a bit of a shame to finish on a low but overall it was a pretty fascinating read that definitely changed my perspective on cannibalism. What do you think overall?

Beth: Overall I’m really impressed both with the subject matter and writing style. I did expect it to focus much more on cannibalism in nature but I’m kind of glad it didn’t. I felt that I discovered much more about historical incidences of cannibalism in different cultures and their reasoning behind doing it. It took down all the sensationalism behind the topic and delivered honest, accurate evidence. You?

Stuart: I agree. Bill Schutt is a hands-on researcher and an informative and down-to-earth writer. He wanted to get all the facts in one place and discuss where cannibalism exists in nature and the reasons behind it. I was amazed about the injustices done to the Carib and other indigenous tribes just to gain more land but to be honest after thinking about it, it’s not surprising. Us humans are capable of terrible things. Do you have a favourite chapter?

Beth: Very true. It made me ashamed of what we’ve done to people on their own land purely for colonialism! Ooh that’s a good question 🤔 I think my favourite chapter had to be Go On Eat The Kids or Sexual Cannibalism, Or Size Matters just because I was absolutely fascinated by cannibalism in nature. How about you?

Stuart: The chapter about The Donner Party was my favourite. It captured the essence of how desperate a normal human being would need to eat their own. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History really gave me food for thought (excuse the pun). It was a subject I had no experience of and I was surprised by how much I learned. Thank you for suggesting it for our buddy read. I was glad that Bill Schutt skipped the unnatural cases like serial killers etc and instead focused on the deep rooted presence of cannibalism in nature and humanity. We need to find more eye opening NF just like this!

Beth: Absolutely! I’m very intrigued to read his other NF now, it’s called Dark Banquet: Blood And The Curious Life Of Blood-Feeding Creatures. Any NF that is as eye opening as this is a winner in my books. 🤗

Stuart: Cheers for another brilliant buddy read. I look forward to reading your full review 😁

Here endeth the Twitter chat.

Final Thoughts

As some of you might know, I’m a scientist (by day! blogger by night!) and I really love to get my teeth into some popular science non fiction. This book has been on my radar for a little while now as it appealed to the science geek in me as well as my more morbid, darker side. I actually wished for it as one of the books I’d most like to receive for my birthday this year (see my post HERE) and very luckily for, some little fairy was listening in the form of my sister, fellow blogger Chrissi Reads and it landed on my doorstep along with ALL the others on the list as soon as I had returned from holiday. I have the best sister.

Anyway, as my previous buddy read with Stuart was YA fiction, we thought we’d branch out a bit into a different genre and the topic of cannibalism throughout history seemed to be the ideal, if rather controversial talking point. I’m not sure if I can speak for Stuart but this was a hugely different buddy reading experience for me, personally. I mean, obviously we’re talking real-life events rather than fictional characters but it was fascinating to hear his point of view on certain topics that were raised, as you can see in our Twitter chat above. We both had similar reactions to the horrific ways indigenous peoples have been treated through history and is certainly now something I want to educate myself more about going forward in reading non fiction.

Bill Schutt, author of Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.

Generally speaking, I thought the author made consistently valid and sensible points regarding an issue that at times could be considered both sensationalist and scare-mongering. In fact, this was precisely the way many people in our recent history have viewed it, labelled certain behaviours or simply used it as an excuse to get rid of certain groups of individuals that don’t fit the necessary mould. The great thing about this book is that it never delves into that sensationalist mindset. It would be so easy for Bill Schutt to talk about the cannibalistic murderers in human society that have made headlines and whom we may associate with the topic as soon as the word pops into the periphery. Of course, they are given a brief mention, it would again be strange not to acknowledge them but this book is about so much more than the rogue psychologically disturbed and relatively few members of the human cannibalism club.

The title says exactly what it does on the tin. This astounding piece of non fiction is about cannibalism both in nature and in history. We learn the reasons why animals may cannibalise in the natural world and even the isolated incidents in humans are explored in a rational and methodical manner. It’s not just about eating your own kind for the hell of it. Sometimes it’s pure and simple survival when other resources are dangerously dwindled and there is literally, no other choice. Of course, there will be obvious exceptions to this rule but it was fascinating to see this topic in a whole new light and realise that we can’t always rely on history to tell the absolute truth.

Thank you so much to Stuart @ Always Trust In Books for another amazing buddy reading experience, I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to many more in the future!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

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Mini Pin-It Reviews #18 – Four Random Books

Published February 17, 2018 by bibliobeth

Hello everyone and welcome to another mini pin-it reviews post! I have a massive backlog of reviews and this is my way of trying to get on top of things a bit. This isn’t to say I didn’t like some of these books – my star rating is a more accurate reflection of this, but this is a great, snappy way of getting my thoughts across and decreasing my backlog a bit. This time I’ve got four random books for you – please see my pin-it thoughts below!

1.) The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements – Sam Kean

What’s it all about?:

The Periodic Table is one of man’s crowning scientific achievements. But it’s also a treasure trove of stories of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The infectious tales and astounding details in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON follow carbon, neon, silicon, and gold as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, war, the arts, poison, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.
We learn that Marie Curie used to provoke jealousy in colleagues’ wives when she’d invite them into closets to see her glow-in-the-dark experiments. And that Lewis and Clark swallowed mercury capsules across the country and their campsites are still detectable by the poison in the ground. Why did Gandhi hate iodine? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium? And why did tellurium lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

From the Big Bang to the end of time, it’s all in THE DISAPPEARING SPOON.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

2.) I Am The Messenger – Markus Zusak

What’s it all about?:

protect the diamonds
survive the clubs
dig deep through the spades
feel the hearts

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That’s when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

3.) The Moth – Catherine Burns (editor)

What’s it all about?:

With an introduction by Neil Gaiman.

Before television and radio, before penny paperbacks and mass literacy, people would gather on porches, on the steps outside their homes, and tell stories. The storytellers knew their craft and bewitched listeners would sit and listen long into the night as moths flitted around overhead. The Moth is a non-profit group that is trying to recapture this lost art, helping storytellers – old hands and novices alike – hone their stories before playing to packed crowds at sold-out live events.

The very best of these stories are collected here: whether it’s Bill Clinton’s hell-raising press secretary or a leading geneticist with a family secret; a doctor whisked away by nuns to Mother Teresa’s bedside or a film director saving her father’s Chinatown store from money-grabbing developers; the Sultan of Brunei’s concubine or a friend of Hemingway’s who accidentally talks himself into a role as a substitute bullfighter, these eccentric, pitch-perfect stories – all, amazingly, true – range from the poignant to the downright hilarious.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

4.) The Chimes – Anna Smaill

What’s it all about?:

The Chimes is set in a reimagined London, in a world where people cannot form new memories, and the written word has been forbidden and destroyed.

In the absence of both memory and writing is music.

In a world where the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is blasphemy, all appears lost. But Simon Wythern, a young man who arrives in London seeking the truth about what really happened to his parents, discovers he has a gift that could change all of this forever.

A stunning literary debut by poet and violinist Anna Smaill, The Chimes is a startlingly original work that combines beautiful, inventive prose with incredible imagination.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

COMING UP NEXT TIME ON MINI PIN IT REVIEWS: Four Author Requests.

Book Tag – Shelfie By Shelfie #3

Published December 7, 2017 by bibliobeth

Image edited from: <a href=”http://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/frame”>Frame image created by Jannoon028 – Freepik.com</a>

Hi everyone and welcome to a brand new tag – Shelfie by Shelfie that I was inspired to create late one night when I couldn’t sleep. If you want to join in, you share a picture (or “shelfie”) of one of your shelves i.e. favourites, TBR, however you like to organise them, and then answer ten questions that are based around that particular shelf. I have quite a large collection and am going to do every single bookshelf which comprises both my huge TBR and the books I’ve read and kept but please, don’t feel obliged to do every shelf yourself if you fancy doing this tag. I’d love to see anything and just a snapshot of your collection would be terrific and I’m sure, really interesting for other people to see!

For my very first Shelfie by Shelfie please see my post HERE.

For my second Shelfie by Shelfie please see my post HERE.

Anyway – on with the tag, here is the third shelf of my first bookshelf (I’ve chosen to split it up into two separate shelfies because of the sheer number of books (oops!) so here is the back shelf):

And here are the questions!:

1.) Is there any reason for this shelf being organised the way it is or is it purely random?

Yes! For once there is some proper organisation on my bookshelves! This back shelf consists of some of my favourite books, (usually five stars) some I can’t bear to throw away but weren’t necessarily five star reads and the Throne Of Glass series so far which I adore.

2.) Tell us a story about one of the books on this shelf that is special to you i.e. how you got it/ a memory associated with it etc.

I’m going to mention a book you can hardly see, the lighting is quite bad (sorry!) and it’s quite a slim little thing. It’s Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. This book is so special to me, it was one of my favourite reads from childhood and I read it again a few years ago as part of my Kid Lit challenge with my sister and fellow blogger, Chrissi Reads. I’m quite the arachnophobic so you would think a book with a spider as one of its main characters would be hideous for me but I adored Charlotte and of course, the entire story. Super nostalgic!

3.) Which book from this shelf would you ditch if you were forced to and why?

I bet my sister is laughing at me right now. When she did her Shelfie by Shelfie (check out her post HERE) she decided to do her favourites shelf and I had a chuckle at her when she told me off for this question! Ugh – okay I have to answer it….I made her answer it. It would be The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It’s such a brilliant non-fiction science book but I’m honestly not sure if I would read it cover to cover again in the near future.

4.) Which book from this shelf would you save in an emergency and why?

Easy peasy for this one (although I was torn for a second between two). It would be A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I’m a bit of a Ness fangirl and this copy of the illustrated edition is actually signed by the great man himself when I met him at YALC. It’s very precious to me!

How lucky am I?!

5.) Which book has been on this shelf for the longest time?

That would be Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I’ve had this exact copy ever since I first read it when I was about fifteen I think? This is one of my all time favourite books and although it’s a bit of a beast at just over 1000 pages, I think I’m definitely due a re-read!

6.) Which book is the newest addition to this shelf?

The White Road by Sarah Lotz. I read it this year and it automatically went to the favourites shelf as a definite five star read. This is a proof copy but I’m planning to buy a final paperback version soon as it’s one I’m going to be keeping and re-reading in the future.

7.) Which book from this shelf are you most excited to read (or re-read if this is a favourites shelf?)

I think I’d really like to re-read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger quite soon. I read it in my pre-blogging days and thought the intricacies of the story were absolutely beautiful. I’d love to write a review on it after reading it for the second time – hopefully I’ll love it just as much!

8.) If there is an object on this shelf apart from books, tell us the story behind it.

There isn’t any object on this shelf, there’s no room for anything else apart from books (and even then, not enough room for some of them, eek!).

9.) What does this shelf tell us about you as a reader?

It tells you some of my favourite books of all time and again, probably says something about the eclectic taste I have as a reader. There are so many genres up there – YA, romance, classics, thrillers, science fiction and historical fiction. I like to push the boat out in terms of what I read and don’t like to chain myself to a particular genre.

10.) Choose other bloggers to tag or choose a free question you make up yourself.

Anyone who wants to do this, please feel free, I’d be delighted but please tag me in your post so I can see your shelfie in all its glory. This time round I’m going to choose a question for myself:

Is there any book on this shelf that you’ve had a strong emotional response to?

As this is a favourites shelf, there’s been quite a few. I tend to want to keep books that elicit any emotion from me whether that’s sadness or happiness. I’m going to choose The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It was a recommendation from a podcast I used to listen to, sadly no longer running called Books On The Nightstand. When I first started reading it, I found it a little slow but I wasn’t prepared for how much I became invested in the story and some of the events of the novel were incredibly harrowing.

COMING SOON on bibliobeth : Shelfie by Shelfie #4

 

 

The Secret Life Of Sleep – Kat Duff

Published December 30, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

What makes us cross the line from waking to slumber? According to Harvard scientists it’s our ‘sleep switch’ – a cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus. For the ancient Greeks it was the god Hypnos, caressing you with his wings. For the Blackfeet Indians, a butterfly. And in European children’s tales, the Sandman, sprinkling you with dust.

Why do we sleep? What happens in our brains when we sleep? Why are sleep patterns in modern Western industrialised countries so unhealthy? Is the boundary between sleep and wakefulness as clear cut as we might have supposed? How meaningful are dreams? Kat Duff brings insights from her own life, from the latest in sleep science, the paintings of Salvidor Dali, the musings of Michel de Montaigne, and wisdom and rituals from around the world and the past to paint a fascinating picture of a world that is both the most intimate and the most secret to us: sleep.

What did I think?:

From time to time I do enjoy a good non-fiction read, especially in the field of popular science as it relates to what I do for a living. When I saw this book in my local bookshop, I couldn’t resist. Neuroscience is probably one of my favourite areas so I find anything that involves how our brain works fascinating and irresistible. I was pleased to see that the author covers a wide range of topics related to sleep, including dreams and their possible interpretations, sleep deprivation, sleep paralysis, sleep walking and most interestingly for me, how other cultures view sleep both historically and currently.

I always hope to come out of a book like this with lots of lovely new information to store away and remember at some point in the future (usually inane facts to bore my friends and family with!). For example, the author recounts a story of a sleep-walking woman in Denver who got in her car, drove down the road, caused an accident, urinated in the middle of an intersection and became violent with police – all while still asleep! We also learn about whales and dolphins who always sleep with one hemisphere of their brain awake as they need to be able to breathe. Therefore, they float on the surface of the water while one side sleeps then change direction to give the other side a little rest. It was while reading passages like these that I enjoyed the book most.

Perhaps it’s a personal preference but the author seemed to put more of her own anecdotes in compared to good, solid, scientific fact. While it was interesting to read her theories and opinions at times I wished for a slightly more analytical look at such a fascinating topic. She writes in a beautiful way although some people might consider her language a bit too “flowery,” for a non-fiction book. Personally, I found her prose to be something a bit different and it did bring a certain flair to sections which may otherwise seem a bit dry. It looked at sleep from a variety of different angles i.e. psychology, philosophy, mythology which was interesting but sometimes I found things to be a little irrelevant. I don’t think I’ve read a book which solely focuses on sleep before so I don’t really have anything to compare it to but I think to anyone who is interested in the subject it’s a decent enough read and at the end, I did feel like I had learned a few things.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

 

The Tale Of The Duelling Neurosurgeons: The History Of The Human Brain As Revealed By True Stories Of Trauma, Madness and Recovery – Sam Kean

Published November 15, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

From the author of the best-seller The Disappearing Spoon, tales of the brain and the history of neuroscience.

Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could only marvel at the transformations that took place afterward, altering victims’ personalities. An injury to one section can leave a person unable to recognize loved ones; some brain trauma can even make you a pathological gambler, paedophile, or liar. But a few scientists realized that these injuries were an opportunity for studying brain function at its extremes. With lucid explanations and incisive wit, Sam Kean explains the brain’s secret passageways while recounting forgotten stories of common people whose struggles, resiliency, and deep humanity made modern neuroscience possible.

What did I think?:

I couldn’t resist The Duelling Neurosurgeons when I saw it, it’s got everything I could possibly ask for from a popular science book. Firstly, it focuses on arguably the most exciting and mysterious organ in the human body – the brain, which has always fascinated me ever since I studied a module on neuroscience as part of my first degree. Secondly, it combines triumphs (and disasters) of neurosurgeons through history and provides case studies of “real,” patients, some of whom left me dumbfounded. For example, the blind man who travelled the world by using echolocation and textbook studies such as Phineas Gage who received such a traumatic brain injury that it ended up changing his entire personality. Finally (and perhaps one of the things that excited me the most), Sam Kean introduces each chapter by providing a little puzzle or “rebus” to illustrate what the content of that particular chapter might be about.

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This was so much fun and I was quite strict with myself, not going on to read the chapter until I had figured out the rebus. This proved quite frustrating with some of the trickier images!

Why The Duelling Neurosurgeons? Well, it all starts in 1559 where King Henri II of France receives a traumatic injury to his brain after a jousting accident. The two most prominent brain doctors of the day, Paré and Vesalius (who also founded what we know now as modern anatomy) were called to his bedside and although some of their methods for treating the king were quite primitive, essentially they both led the way for further experimentation and brain surgery today. For example, Paré was quite keen on strange concoctions and compresses, one in particular consisted of egg yolk, turpentine, earthworms and dead puppies. Each to their own I guess?!… He also devised a strange experiment that allowed him to differentiate between fatty tissue and brain tissue in a frying pan where fat was seen to liquefy and brain would shrivel.

There is a wealth of interesting information from case studies put forward in this book but I’ll just mention a couple of my favourites. The section on phantom limbs, where someone who has recently had a limb amputated can still feel pain in the area that the limb used to be was fascinating but did you know that some women who have had complete hysterectomies can still have phantom menstrual pains? Or there are even such things as phantom teeth, phantom penises and phantom erections? The topics covered by the author are intriguing, informative and endlessly thought-provoking. In fact, I’ve never had so much fun before reading a popular science book. I have the author’s first two books to read on my Kindle – The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb and if they’re half as entertaining as this one was, I’m in for a treat. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about this surprising and brilliant organ.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

Extremes: Life, Death And The Limits Of The Human Body – Kevin Fong

Published September 9, 2015 by bibliobeth

17396823

What’s it all about?:

Drawing on his own experiences in trauma surgery as an anaesthetist and intensive care expert, ‘Extremes’ is Kevin Fong’s account of the way cutting-edge medicine is pushing the envelope of human survival.

What did I think?:

Along with the mountain load of fiction I read, I love to throw a non-fiction book into the mix from time to time especially popular science as it relates to my day job (scientist by day, blogger by night!). Extremes looked particularly good when I spied it on the shelves in my local library, I was intrigued not only by the title but by the anticipated content. Dr Kevin Fong has a degree in astrophysics, a topic which has fascinated him from an early age but he also made it through medical school. He is based at University College Hospital, London as a consultant anaesthetist with a special interest in trauma therefore has a wealth of knowledge and experience under his belt for writing this book. He breaks it down into nine separate chapters entitled: ICE, FIRE, HEART, TRAUMA, INTENSIVE CARE, WATER, ORBIT, MARS and FINAL FRONTIERS and explains in each chapter how the human body reacts, copes and deals with extreme circumstances.

I really loved the way in which this book was presented. The author takes us back into history for example discussing the fate of poor explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1910 who became severely hypothermic and died when faced with the adverse weather conditions of the South Pole. The author will then build on the historical information that we are given and describe the amazing frontier that we have reached nowadays. Think about a heart bypass operation where the body is cooled down and its processes taken over by a heart-lung machine so that surgeons can begin their repair of the heart without fear of the body becoming toxic or the irreparable effects of the lack of oxygen on the brain. It is down to an explosion in technology and improved knowledge of our physiology that the greatest scientists and doctors have been able to provide us with better care and indeed, prolong or save our lives in a critical situation.

One of my favourite bits of our history was reading about the renowned surgeon Archibald McIndoe who became a pioneer and probably invented the field of plastic surgery during World War II, after treating hundreds of young soldiers with horrific burn injuries. He would take a piece of skin from a normal part of the body i.e. not burned and graft it onto the burned site, such as the face. The only problem with this they found was that for the “new skin,” to develop its own blood supply correctly it initially had to be attached to the place where the skin was taken in the first place. If you’ve seen pictures of men with their noses attached to their arms, that’s what I’m alluding to but here’s a picture to make it clearer.

extremes

Image courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/southern_counties/4274838.stm

Another thing that I loved about this book was Dr Fong’s own anecdotes like the time in 1999 when he was a newly qualified doctor and his surgical team were called to the site of a bombing in Soho. The way he describes seeing the carnage was almost heart-breaking and it emphasised the importance for him of three little letters – A (for Airway) B (for Breathing) and C (for Circulation) when dealing with a severe incident such as this. On a more light-hearted note, he also describes being lucky (or unlucky) enough to ride on the “vomit comet.” This is a special aeroplane which climbs to 35,000 feet before the plane free-falling through the air for twenty seconds or so. It is supposed to simulate weightlessness in the way that astronauts experience while in space. From his description though, I’m not sure he will be repeating the experience!

The author finishes Extremes with a couple of chapters about space and the race to get the first man on Mars. It wasn’t my favourite part of the book although I did find it interesting and it is obviously a great passion for the author, who has also had a placement at NASA. Overall, this is a terrific read. If you’re interested in the human body, particularly in how we struggle in severe situations, this is the book for you. You don’t have to have a scientific background to read it, it is explained very simply without ever once being patronising. Kevin Fong manages to mix historical evidence and personal experience with a sound knowledge and relaxed writing style to put his readers at ease and enthrall us. If he decides to write another, I’ll be sure to read it and then tell you all about it of course!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

 

The Neurotourist: Postcards From The Edge Of Brain Science – Lone Frank

Published January 21, 2015 by bibliobeth

The Neurotourist: Postcards from the Edge of Brain Science

What’s it all about?:

Discover the true heart of humanity: the brain. Your brain shapes your world, but you can also shape your brain. From the God helmet to the No Lie MRI, award-winning journalist Lone Frank embarks on an incredible adventure to the frontiers of neuroscience, revealing how today’s top scientists are reinventing human nature, morality, happiness, health, and reality itself. Interlacing bizarre experiments, cutting-edge research, and irreverent interviews, The Neurotourist is an unforgettable tour of the mind-bending revolution underway in the new age of the brain. A critically-acclaimed journalist, science writer, and TV presenter, Lone Frank also holds a PhD in neurobiology and has worked as a research scientist in Denmark and the US. Apart from a particularly ‘cute’ corpus callosum she has an expert’s word that her brain is quite unremarkable.

What did I think?:

I was quite excited when I saw this title at my local library as my favourite non-fiction books are usually science-based and I’m fascinated with the whole area of neuroscience which is constantly changing as we learn more about the mysterious goings-on of our brains. Looking at the contents page also provides some scope for excitement with intriguing titles such as “Finding God in the synapses: your own personal Jesus,” “Happiness is a cognitive workout,” and “Lies, damn lies – the prints are all over your cortex.” So, interesting content and a science writer with a sense of humour… sounds like my perfect book but in reality I’m afraid it fell slightly flat.

This is not to say that this is a bad read because it definitely isn’t and I guess it just depends what you’re looking for from the book. It’s chock-a-block with interesting facts and figures and I enjoyed reading about the number of studies that have been carried out in the name of neuroscience, bad or good depending on the answers it gave the researchers and in many cases, from the author’s personal (and often strong) opinion! One particularly mind-boggling and often controversial example is the area of religion when associated with the brain.

Basically, from a very young age, our surroundings and parental beliefs have a direct impact on what is hard-wired into the brain in much the same way that we learn the complexities of language. Having a large amount of serotonin (that happy hormone) in our brains affects the extent to which a person is spiritual and researchers have shown that actual spiritual experiences can be induced by increasing the brain’s natural supply of our own personal opiate system. One of my favourite experimental examples related to this is “The God Helmet.” This was a piece of apparatus developed by scientists Koren and Persinger to study events occurring when the temporal lobe of the brain was stimulated. Our author was the perfect test subject as she noted the feeling of a “presence,” when wearing the helmet. Persinger has confirmed that for several subjects “mystical experiences and altered states,” were reported but what does this mean for religion? Is it just because our temporal lobe has been stimulated that we are aware of the presence of God? Other scientists seem to think so and have quite a lot to say about religion: Boyer called it “a parasite on our cognitive apparatus,” and more recently the loud and proud atheist Richard Dawkins said it was “comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” Yikes, I may not be a religious person but harsh words, Mr Dawkins!

I think the above chapter on religion was probably my favourite point of the entire book as other chapters focused on economics, ethics and marketing which although easy to read became slightly dull and are not really my cup of tea. Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book as unfortunately I didn’t really find out anything I didn’t know already. Although some parts were humorous I did also feel that the author tended to get on her soap box and was rather close-minded when discussing a personal opinion of her own that she was convinced was correct/the only possible explanation. Saying that, her passion for the subject area cannot be faulted and may be a writing style that can be appreciated by a different reader.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art