Angela Saini Explores the Final Frontier for Feminism

If there is one book you need to read this year, it is Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. Author Angela Saini sets out to “knock down the greatest barrier that stands between women and full equality — the one in our minds.” She succeeds.

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist who holds a master’s in engineering from Oxford University. INFERIOR is her second book. Source


“It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated.” Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792

In 1881, writing a letter addressed to an activist for women’s rights, Charles Darwin explained why he believed women were the intellectual inferiors of men. Claiming that his belief was based upon scientific principles, he asserted that women were simply not as evolved.

“To be fair to Darwin, he was a man of his time,” Saini notes. “His ideas may have been revolutionary, but his attitudes towards women were solidly Victorian.”

Inferior is undoubtedly a feminist book, but Saini didn’t set out with an ax to grind. Instead, she approaches the idea of women’s inferiority with the investigative rigor and levelheadedness of an experienced science journalist. And with such capable handling of her subject and the obvious depth to her research, it would be difficult to find someone more qualified to write the book on how science got women wrong.

According to Saini, her book was originally inspired by a piece she did for The Observer called Menopause: nature’s way of saying older women aren’t sexually attractive?. “It was just fascinating” Saini said in a video for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It really encapsulated the battle for the sexes, the gender wars, so I used that as a springboard to investigate the wider issues of what science tells us about women.”

One of the ideas she establishes early on in the book is that although men and women have some physical differences, the variation between them is not as pronounced as some may claim. This is important because inherent biological differences are at the heart of the argument that men and women perform differently on certain tasks — and the reason women have been barred from many male-dominated fields, such as STEM.

But how can we be unbiased in research about biological differences, especially in regards to performance? How can scientists, both male and female, aim for objectivity when one sex seeks to assert itself while the other defends itself? Only through good science can the answers to difficult questions be found. In the study of sex and gender, Saini shows us how bad science has fueled misconceptions and bolstered the argument behind many unfortunate stereotypes.

Perhaps the most notorious study documenting differences between men and women was that of Simon Baron-Cohen, whose paper claimed to prove that important sex-related differences existed in the behavior of newborn babies. In 2005, when president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers suggested that innate biological differences may cause the “shortfall of female scientists and mathematicians”, Baron-Cohen used the study to defend Summer’s argument. The famous cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker has also used Baron-Cohen’s study to defend the idea that innate differences between men and women could account for the lack of women seen in STEM careers.

Saini doesn’t necessarily scoff at the study. She is careful to include voices from both sides so that reader may look at the argument from every possible perspective. However, she is also careful to point out where the science is flawed. Throughout her analysis, interviews with those involved, and with a dose of journalistic skepticism, Saini is in constant pursuit of the truth.

What she finds is that much of the science that claims to indicate substantial differences between the brains and behavior of men and women is sketchy at best. Through rigorous research into each infamous study, she tears down sexist stereotypes about women one after another — and just as the title of her book claims, she shares the new research rewriting the story. Saini has compiled and highlighted the most convincing evidence for the argument that bad science has gotten a lot about women wrong.

On that basis, it’s no surprise that a crowdfunding campaign was launched to get her book into every high school in the UK — and unsurprisingly, it succeeded.

Biologically built for different roles – or not?

Have you ever heard that men and women are complements of each other? It’s rooted in the idea that each sex is better at certain things than the other. Women are more empathetic, men are more systematic. Men should be breadwinners, women should bear children. It’s not our choice — it’s the way we were biologically designed for separate spheres.

As Saini explains, “The notion of complementarity thrived throughout the Victorian era and ultimately became epitomized in the 1950’s middle-class suburban housewife. She fulfilled her natural role as wife and mother, while her husband fulfilled his role as breadwinner.”

Comments that women are “better with people” and “more in tune with their emotions”, and therefore cut out for roles involving those skills, may seems like praise at first — especially when men tout it as such. But the idea of “natural roles” in complementarity is really just another way to confine women to traditional stereotypes. If a scientist believes that there are natural roles justified by biological differences, it could potentially affect their research. There’s even a word for this kind of bias: neurosexism.

Book cover for INFERIOR. Source

Coined by psychologist Cordelia Fine in 2010, the term is helpful in describing research that falls back on these unproven stereotypes. Although “study after study has shown almost all behavioral and psychological differences between the sexes to be small or nonexistent,” Saini notes that there are still scientists who argue that “men and women perform differently when it comes to social cognition tests, spatial processing, and motor speed” — despite evidence indicating that this isn’t the case.

Even in children, as Cambridge University psychologist Melissa Hines and other experts have demonstrated repeatedly that “boys and girls have little, if any, noticeable gaps between them when it comes to fine motor skills, spatial visualization, mathematics ability, and verbal fluency.” In fact, as it turns out, there are on average more differences between individuals than between the sexes.

This hasn’t stopped bad science — studies with overestimated or exaggerated results, skewed statistics, or improper methods — from becoming the root of many stereotypical assumptions of men and women. These issues of origin can lead to a lot of confusion and disagreement between the members of the scientific community — how can a study be valid if it was building off of an unproven stereotype?

Throughout the book, Saini remains levelheaded and sharply focused. She succeeds at bringing a balanced perspective through multiple voices to approach each topic. She’s not a so-called raging feminist; she’s a science journalist taking aim at an injustice.

I would write more about the many fascinating topics Saini explores in each chapter – some of my favorites included her discussion of anthropologists and the “grandmother theory” about postmenopausal women, as well as research in mate guarding behaviors and sexual promiscuity. But nothing I could tell you would be anything near as eloquent and thorough as what Saini has already written. Her book is astonishing. Captivating. Surprising.

There is nothing more I can do than urge you to read it. Read it immediately. Ignore your precariously tall stack of books waiting to be read. Put everything else on hold. Ask a friend to read it with you. And give away your copy to someone when you’ve finished.

This is the most important book of the decade. You will want everyone else to read it, too.


UPDATE: Want to help get a copy of Inferior into U.S. high schools and encourage the next generation of women in science? Consider donating through the GoFundMe campaign!

Chasing Whales Both Living & Extinct in Nick Pyenson’s Epic Travelogue

 

Spying on Whales is an exciting exploration through the evolutionary history of whales. Author Nick Pyenson takes his readers along to spy on scientists digging up fossils in the field and tagging whales from the deck of a ship.

Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals for the Smithsonian, studies whales both living and extinct as a marine paleobiologist. His book almost feels like a memoir, giving readers a glimpse into the inner life of a scientist: the gritty details of fieldwork, his friendships with colleagues, the way his mind puzzles together fossils to make sense of their mysteries.

Mystery might be a good way to describe Spying on Whales. Upon discovering the Cerro Ballena (“Whale Hill”), an incredible fossil site in Chile’s Atacama Desert with many whale fossils and threatened by the impeding development of a highway, Pyenson and his team work against the clock collecting massive fossilized whales. Puzzled by the extraordinary find, he and the researchers try to make sense of their discovery and how the various fossils came to be there. Through simply riveting storytelling, Pyenson presents a mystery thousands of years in the making.

“And it made no sense that there were so many [fossils], so close together. I couldn’t think of any other field site of fossil whales like it.”

In the beginning of Spying on Whales, Pyenson paints a picture of strange, ancient land-dwelling whales while he walks through their evolution and transformation. Today all marine mammal lineages, he notes, are actually distantly related to each other — even polar bears and whales.

Cetaceans act as Pyenson’s “vehicles for understanding life over geologic time”, and are what ultimately led him to the Smithsonian to curate the world’s great collection of fossil whale skulls. And perhaps what Pyenson is best at is bringing these ancient whales to life for his readers, connecting them with a fantastically strange prehistoric earth.

For example, his vivid description of the Basilosaurus brings an ancient whale to life in the reader’s imagination:

Basilosaurus hardly seems like a whale — saying it’s almost like a whale would be charitable. It had a toothy, snout-dominated head, looking something like a giant leopard seal, except its nostrils were located not at the tip of its snout but about half-way farther back. It had a visible neck, unlike most of today’s whales. While its fingers and hands were probably encased in flesh, forming a paddle, it could bend its arms at the elbow, as no living whale can. The most remarkable thing about it was its long, eel-like body — most of its length came from its tail. Basilosaurus probably had a tail fluke, but it also had cartoonishly small hind limbs. These hind limbs were vestiges from its land-dwelling predecessors; as mentioned previously, they could not have held up Basilosaurus’s enormous weight (about six tons) on land. In other words, Basilosaurus was fully aquatic, living its entire life underwater.”

In addition to these vivid and engrossing descriptions, Pyenson’s text is illuminated by wonderful illustrations by Alex Boersma that seem to embed themselves in the reader’s mind. Boersma, a scientific illustrator and scientist who has done research in Pyenson’s lab, delivers artwork that is incredible delightful to encounter throughout the text.

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One of the most interesting and unique aspect of Spying on Whales is that it gives readers insight into the lives of scientists and the everyday reality of research and fieldwork, like the technology and effort required to excavate massive fossil whales. For those of us who are not scientists, it’s an opportunity to peer through the window and into the lab and life of a real scientist, which is arguably more fascinating than the science itself.

Take, for example, the thrilling discovery Pyenson and his colleagues had when they sliced open a whale’s chin while conducting research at an Icelandic whaling station. Examining freshly caught whales is an opportunity to study the anatomy and biology of these incredible creatures — and the researchers had the opportunity of a scientist’s lifetime when they discovered something strange inside the whale’s chin.

But I’ll leave you to read the book for more on that one.

Visiting whaling stations was a chance to better understand the inner workings of a whale, helping scientists throughout history answer questions about how these leviathans live the way they do. Whales have succeeded in capturing the imaginations of humans for centuries. Pyenson mentions the astonishing picture of a blue whale taken by photographer Frank Hurley, one that is difficult to forget:

“Few people alive today, if any, can relate to the sight of a carcass that massive” writes Pyenson. “While only about 150 blue whales were ever killed at these lengths, over 325,000 blue whales of all sizes were killed during Southern Ocean whaling in the twentieth century; today blue whales are a rare sight in these waters. It’s quite possible that the gigantic, limit-pushing blue whales have had their genes removed from the population by whaling. At the least, it will take a few more decades for any surviving calves from that era, now fully mature adults, to reach the lengths of their ancestors.”

Full of Pyenson’s voice and personality, Spying on Whales is accessible and friendly, an epic story that will take readers around the world in a quest to understand the massive marine mammals that captivate our minds and imaginations.


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Journey through the Alimentary Canal with Mary Roach

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Today’s guest review is by science writer Jordan Gaal. I am pleased to share Jordan’s review here on Read More Science — he provides an insightful glimpse into author Mary Roach’s Gulp, introducing us to Roach’s delightful and interesting story about the science of the digestive system.

unnamedJordan Gaal is a strategic communications and public relations professional serving clients in the agriculture, food and health industries at MorganMyers. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in life sciences communication. Jordan’s work has appeared in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, the Journal of Undergraduate Science and Technology and the Genetic Literacy Project. Follow him on Twitter or at the scicommreport.com.


If you’ve ever wondered how to survive being swallowed alive or if chewing longer can lower the national debt, then you’re in luck. Mary Roach, author of other humorous and fascinating science stories such as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, delivers 327 pages jam-packed with science about the digestive system in Gulp: Adventures of the Alimentary Canal.

Roach succeeds at being informative, and often humorous, about everything from chewing to the inevitable (or at least it should be, as you’ll soon learn) disposal of your food, without being overly crude. Roach sums up her literary gut-journey the best:

“I don’t want you to say, ‘This is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.’”

I can assure you, there is no digestive-related stone left unturned. It’s the perfect book for casual reading, and an even better book to binge-read in few nights.

With a delightful use of metaphor, Roach weaves words together to create simple explanations of complex systems, without sacrificing the science. The introduction begins with a brief overview of the entire alimentary canal, defined as the whole passage along which food passes through the body from mouth to anus, including the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Roach provides in depth explanations of the purpose of saliva, the science of stomach acid and the dangers of hydrogen and methane, the key ingredients in flatulence.

This isn’t only a science book about the alimentary canal, it’s a book about the way scientists work. In each chapter, Roach introduces us to a new scientist, modern or historical. She skillfully transports you to the lab, describing in colorful details the historical, and sometimes forgotten, experiments and procedures that led to our current understanding of digestion.

In chapter five, Roach introduces us to “medicine’s oddest couple”, William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin. Starting in 1822, they had a strictly professional relationship, at least from what we can tell. St. Martin was a common laborer who was involved in a terrible accident and Beaumont was a scientist looking for something to bolster his lackluster career. Without spoiling too much, St. Martin’s accident resulted in an observable hole in his stomach and Beaumont abused it for science. From this came several discoveries that Roach describes in perfect, humorous science writing — like only she can.

If you aren’t excited yet, in the penultimate chapter Roach describes something called a “megacolon”. It’s pretty close to what it sounds like. Numerous people throughout history have suffered at the hands of the megacolon, a fascinating digestive anomaly to the medical community. One notable character discussed in this chapter is the King himself, Elvis Presley. You’ll have to read for yourself to figure out what Presley and megacolons have in common.

In one word, Roach’s book is intriguing. History buffs will appreciate the accounts of 19th century medical practices and avid science readers will truly enjoy the informative descriptions of the inner workings of our digestive system. For any reader, this book will leave you feeling just a little bit closer to your stomach.


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Connect with Sarah at sciencebookreviews@gmail.com

Helen Scales is your guide to the ocean (and everything) in her latest book

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There’s something so enchanting about visiting an aquarium when you’re a child. The glass tanks rise above you, immersing you in a deep blue world of fish. From the atmospheric music to the shadows of large marine mammals sailing by beyond the glass, it’s an experience you’re not likely to forget.

I grew up in Southern California — my childhood was filled with trips to SeaWorld, where you could stand alongside wall-sized glass panes and peer into the world of beluga whales, porpoises, and orcas. My first job was at the local aquarium, where I led tours and taught visitors about sea stars, urchins, and sea cucumbers at our interactive touch pool. Many of us also have powerful memories of visiting the ocean for the first time. In the prologue of Eye of the Shoal, Helen Scales shares her memory from visiting the Southern California shore for the first time as a fifteen-year-old girl. Seeing beautiful beaches and blue water in person is an unforgettable experience.

An author, diver, and marine biologist herself, she’s the perfect guide for your reading vacation. Helen Scales is to Eye of the Shoal what Sir David Attenborough is to Planet Earth: a gentle voice introducing you to the wonders of the natural world. In the prologue, Scales’ lyrical descriptions are entertaining and imaginative, painting images in your head of the beautiful, elaborate ecosystem beneath the waves.

Early on, it’s clear that Scales is here not only to enchant you, but to educate you. She aims to convince her reader that fish are worth paying more attention to — a goal she certainly accomplishes. While I was reading on a flight to Portland, a gentleman glanced over my shoulder and inquired whether I was actually reading an entire book about fish. I laughed and explained that it was more interesting than it seemed. Since he seemed skeptical, I shared an example of how fascinating the book was: I had no idea that some fish eat pigeons! He seemed surprised — but, as I went on to explain, according to the book there is a certain catfish that has been known to leap from its pond to catch pigeons bathing their feathers a the water’s edge. The topic made for a good conversation during our flight.

My favorite science books are the ones that give me the kind of facts I could talk about with a stranger that would be interesting and entertaining to explain. Scales’ book is packed with accessible and engaging stories about the science and history behind the fishes she describes. Why are some fish bioluminescent? How come we can eat some fish, but not others? What’s the difference between a school and a shoal? How do fish communicate? Scales answers these questions and more in each chapter, such as the chaotic movement of a disorganized shoal compared to the synchronized dance of a school, and why fish do both (or neither).

Scales introduces her readers to the scientists who are working hard to improve our understanding of fish and their watery world. One of these scientists is Eugenie Clark, affectionately remembered as the Shark Lady (and who a new species of shark was recently named after). Scales discusses Clark’s ascent to fame, despite being a female scientist at a time when women struggled to break into science. The warmth and admiration with which she tells Clark’s story makes for a wonderful, inspiring read. It’s often hard not to smile while you’re turning pages, looking forward to what Scales may say next.

Scattered between chapters are short stories of fish gathered from other cultures. Scales retells traditional tales in a lively way designed to reengage the reader, perhaps asking them to consider how fish have woven themselves into history. These wry, sometimes didactic stories serve to explain why something is the way it is, illustrating how humans devised explanations for their questions about fish, such as why the flounder’s face is crooked. The stories make for short, enjoyable reading.

If there is one thing Eye of the Shoal succeeds in doing, it’s that no reader will put down the book without looking at fish in new ways — and as Scales recommends, asking the right questions. Like marine biologists, she wants her readers to gain a broader perspective on fish intelligence, to reconsider their preconceived notions, and ultimately to be more curious about creatures of the sea, or even the fish in the tank at the dentist’s office. Because when you’ve finished reading Eye of the Shoal and feel thoroughly enchanted by Helen Scales’ adventures, you will be ready to go dive in and look for fish yourself.


Readers! For more book reviews, exclusive content, and the chance to win great science books in upcoming giveaways, join the Read More Science Book Club, a monthly newsletter curated by science writer Sarah Olson. Sign up now for a chance to win this month’s book!

Author and Scientist Nick Pyenson shares the books that influenced him

Today Nick Pyenson, author of the recently released Spying on Whales, discusses the books that made an impact on him. For a chance to win a copy of his book, sign up for the Read More Science Book Club, a monthly newsletter for readers of popular science and nonfiction.

Nick Pyenson - credit Carolyn Van Houten

Photo by Carolyn Van Houten

Nick Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His work has taken him to every continent, and his scientific discoveries frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Popular Mechanics, USA Today, and on NPR, NBC, CBC, and the BBC. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Obama White House. He lives with his family in Maryland. @PyensonLab 

Author bio courtesy of Penguinrandomhouse.com

Which books inspired or fueled your interest in paleobiology?

You can’t go too far in paleobiology without finding Stephen J. Gould. He was the closest person our discipline has ever had to a cultural celebrity. Gould is never shied from sharing the big ideas in evolution — the graduate school-level issues like tempo, mode, and agency of evolutionary change. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask a reader to confront major intellectual debates, and Gould was great about humanizing this challenge by way of baseball, art, or funny moments in history. Put another way, paleobiologists are not really stamp collecting; instead all of the work is ultimately in service of bigger questions about how life on work has evolved. For me, his Wonderful Life wrapped up all of that quintessential Gould into a book about the record of the first animal life half a billion years ago that still needs to be read.

Neil Shubin’s Inner Fish also has a place in my pantheon for a variety of reasons. It’s completely accessible and its fundamental conceit — that the human body tells us about evolutionary history — will never cease being relevant. It’s also one of the more prominent contributions in a wave of new literature that blends science with first-person narrative in a compelling way. Shubin covers historical advances, findings in his own career, and brings the reader to the field as well. It’s also a work that hangs on a career of the highest quality science. In many ways, it’s obvious that this kind of book was a necessary step for sharing the importance of discoveries like Tiktaalik — a 375 million year-old fossil fish with limbs — with the broadest possible audience.

Also, I have a lot of time for Richard Fortey, who writes so much about what museum scientists do, from the field work to natural history collections. His Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is delightful. Other paleobiologist-autobiography books well worth reading include Michael Novacek’s Time Traveler, and Gary Vermeij’s Privileged Hands.

Lastly, a major influence for a book about whales is Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge. Although many of the evolutionary chronicles in the book are now out of date — a testament, in fact, to how much science can change in 20 years — Zimmer’s mirrored premise still resonates with me because we can best understand a phenomenon such a whale evolution by thinking broadly about other episodes in the history of life where these transitions have happened. Zimmer frames these episodes by emphasizing the distinction between transition (as in land-to-sea) and transformations (what happens to anatomy), which remains a valuable rubric for students of macroevolution.

How has publishing your book Spying on Whales shifted or altered your career as a scientist? 

Writing a book intended for a general audience is a very different task compared with my day job as a scientist. Most of what I accomplish on a daily basis would probably seem esoteric and quietly mundane to the outsider: examining numbered specimens in a museum drawer; downloading datasets and images; or drafting scientific articles for peer-reviewed journals, though I might spend a rare stretch of time on a boat or walking rock outcrop. But all of those small things add up over the years, which makes a book seems like a good place to land all of those story arcs. The small things, after all, should fit under broader themes and questions that investigate the natural world. I think many of my colleagues understand the inclination to write a book, but rightfully balk at the toll and time away from research.

For one thing, the process of book writing happened on top of my day job — in other words, there were still scientific papers to write, committee work, and the usual expectations of being a museum scientist. I downshifted some tasks, but I still organized and led expeditions for international field work. I would say that the process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson. For example, every marine mammal scientist knows that whales are mammals and once lived on land, but that’s not a given for a general reader — and that says a lot about where you can start with readers and where you can take them. Book writing has also made me far less tolerant of sloppy technical writing in scientific papers, for better or worse. Bad writing is annoying and cheap; writing well takes the effort of applying a harsh rubric. Aside from those fresh lessons, I’m most dedicated at the moment to clearing my long backlog of technical manuscripts — I have quite a few colleagues that are waiting on comments and edits — and preparing for future projects.

“The process of book writing gave me a better vision, from a broad vantage, of how to communicate the important stuff from the academic world to the curious layperson.”

What did the process of moving from scientist to writer look like for you? Were there any challenges you encountered, or surprises you would like to share?

Well, that’s a tricky question because I still think I’m a scientist! Or maybe, I should say, still trying to figure out what it means to be a book author. I think the best answer might be that I’m still trying to navigate the unusual terrain of scientist-author; fortunately, there are so many great role models out with right now with Hope Jahren, Neil Shubin, and many others, who balance the demands of running a research laboratory and communicating to the public. There are, of course, a lot of different kinds of scientists out there (not just principal investigators running labs), and lots of different kinds of book authors — there’s so many ways to potentially combine those two modes.

In some ways, being a museum scientist prepared me a lot for book writing because museums are places where a lot of informal learning happens (in other words, it’s not a classroom and you can’t a degree from it). I’ve spent a lot of my professional career testing different ways of talking about the parts of my research that I think are important to share, especially using different modes whether it’s live-streaming behind-the-scenes activities on social media, 3D printing at large scale, or reporting from the field. Book writing has been special and different from these other ways in scope and method: it was a big platform where I could see how different contributions in my career fit together into a narrative; it allowed me to reflect on what I’ve done and how I did it (namely, with lots of help from colleagues); and it was all an endeavor that was mine alone to accomplish (although I had a great supporting team). I’m happy with the result because it’s very much the book I had wanted to write.

I think anyone who writes a lot will tell you that writing well is hard. Book writing is very different from technical writing in that there’s a real need to think big and small at the same time: invent and refine (and sometimes obliterate) a narrative structure; just get words on a page; and then finesse sections, paragraphs and sentences, sometimes down to specific word choices. It’s demanding and it requires lots of applied effort. I followed a key piece of advice early on in setting aside chunks of time physically away from everyone else to simply do those writing tasks. At times it was tremendously isolating, in a self-imposed way, and so you learn to lean on your support network, especially family and friends — they’re writing the book with you, in many ways.

Book writing also taught me how to edit harshly, on the fly. In the final stages of writing, I felt like I had achieved a kind of editorial superpower, channeling my editor’s voice in my head as I churned out the last few major sections of the book in nearly one go (the prologue and epilogue, actually). I’m not sure that’s persisted, though, because you need to write a lot to stay sharp, like any sport. Lastly, one big piece of advice that’s really hard to swallow: kill your darlings. There’s always a great sentence (in my case, a whole character sketch and side story) that really just gets in the way of the bigger story that you’re trying to tell. It’s for the better. Again, I worked with a great editorial team that really understood me.

What was the most interesting part about moving from reader of science books to author of a science book?

I wrote my book because I wanted to explain, in a clear way, why I spend long periods of time away from my family in remote places to people who may not ever have the opportunity or access to see a living whale. I thought a first-person narrative structure was a good way to accomplish that goal; I really tried to write as if I was explaining various challenges or problems to someone who had never heard of them before, or never had a background in science. Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.

As a long-time reader of science books, I was frustrated by small errors on the easy details: how and when to spell, capitalize, and italicize scientific names; nailing down geologic time periods; or explaining processes clearly, without resorting to cliches or analogies that obscure instead of illuminate. So, in my book, I spent a lot of time getting the facts right, and anchoring statements on published research. There’s quite a long endnotes section with references to original scientific literature, so readers don’t have to take my word for it, but instead can read the scholarship themselves. Put another way, don’t surrender the facts!

“Finding that voice — the one that’s you, that’s authentic — was both easy and hard at the same time.”

What would you say to encourage others to read more science?

There are more great science books out there than ever before, so it’s a great time to discover just the right kind of science book that inspires you. If you’re looking for science books as a gateway drug, I think there ones that highlight discoveries or protracted quests tend to work the best. In many cases, children’s book nail the scope perfectly: Markus Mokum’s Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover is a great example of focusing on a single robot and what it tells us about Mars. Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir is probably the best example of a science book narrative focusing on a basic premise — the fate of a troop of baboons — because it’s actually embedded in story about Sapolsky and his own development as a scientist. I think the “life of a scientist” sub-genre is great for people who may not know what a scientist does or who they can be — Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is an unflinching examination, in that way. One last thing I’d suggest is read authors who have first-hand experience: they don’t need to be scientists, but as a reader you want to trust that they’ve seen the lab equipment, visited the field sites, or gotten to know the study organism in some real way. Avoid the armchair science storytellers.

And lastly, what’s on your own reading list? 

I tend to read several books at once. Right now, I am paging through Emily Watson’s translation of The Odyssey because I somehow skipped over fundamental books from Antiquity in high school; it’s also reassuring to know that some stories and personality types really persist throughout human history. When I need a pause from that, I read a few pieces from Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars collection. I’m trying — and failing — to get through Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. But I’m also the kind of person who will stop reading a book more than half of the way through and pick it up years later (or never). You really don’t want me coming to your book club!


Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Nick

Readers, stay tuned for a review of Spying on Whales and sign up for the monthly newsletter anytime this month for a chance to win a free copy!

August Book Giveaway and other exciting announcements

Welcome to Read More Science. 

Six months ago, I sat down at my computer and opened up WordPress to write my first blog post. It was a book review, because I wanted to share my thoughts and encourage others to read more science books. For several months I worked off of that little blog, The Literature of Science, until I realized I wanted to do more with it: I wanted to give away books, I wanted to interview authors and scientists, and I wanted to start a monthly email newsletter. So I moved my content onto a new domain, readmorescience.com, and created the Read More Science Book Club.

I believe science is for everyone. I also believe anyone can enjoy reading. These two ideas are the motivation making this website possible. I want people to have a place to go for great book recommendations, somewhere they can learn about which books authors and scientists read themselves, and even have a chance to win advance reader copies. That’s what I am aim to provide– because science should be accessible to everyone, and books help make that possible.

So it is with great pleasure that I announce the first book to be featured in a giveaway:

Spying on Whales

Courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group

Tune in tomorrow for an exclusive interview with author Nick Pyenson and an upcoming review of his book. Sign up anytime this month for the Read More Science Book Club monthly newsletter and be automatically entered to win in August’s book giveaway. On Friday, August 31st, I will announce the winner on the blog and contact them via email to claim their prize.

But because this is my first book giveaway, I couldn’t just stop at a brand new copy of Spying on Whales — you’ll also receive two stickers from Two Photon Art. These stickers are perfect bling for your computer or your favorite notebook, and an awesome way to show off your support for science.

If you’re excited about this month’s giveaway, stay tuned for next month’s. In my first newsletter at the end of this month, I will announce September’s book giveaway – this time, an advance reader copy of a book coming out later next month! Stick around for more book reviews, interviews, and other great content.

Happy reading,

Sarah

Carl Zimmer and the Story of Humanity within our Genes

Today, Alison Gilchrist reviews Carl Zimmer’s latest bestseller She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. I am thrilled to have Alison write a guest review; her insight about genetics and her take on Zimmer’s book is simply beautiful. There have been many reviews of Zimmer’s book making their rounds on the internet, but Alison comes at it from the approach of both a scientist and a reader, and her thoughts are worth reading.
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Alison Gilchrist is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studies how dengue virus infects humans and nonhuman primates with Dr. Sara Sawyer. She is currently Editor in Chief at the Science Buffs STEM Blog, a graduate student-run blog at CU, and has written for Massive, Scientific American, and the Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine.
Follow her on Twitter at @AlisonAbridged
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In June, I attended an interview and book signing with author and science journalist Carl Zimmer at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Zimmer was there to talk about his new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, a look into the history of how we understand heredity and biological legacy.

The first question he was asked in the interview regarded his own children: How did it feel to know that any strange or dangerous traits lurking in your genome could be passed down, without your knowledge or control, to your daughter?

Zimmer answered the question in two ways. First, from his own personal experience: essentially, that it was really, really scary. How can you be responsible for a decision as huge as having a child when you know you might accidentally give them a rare, incurable genetic disease? Or possibly worse — they might be short!

In the book he expands on that point: “I had willingly become a conduit for heredity, allowing the biological past to make its way into the future. And yet I had no idea of what I was passing on.”

It can be terrifying to be so ignorant about what’s in your genes and yet know that you will pass it down to future generations.

Then he answered the question in a different way — by talking about what we canknow about our own genetics, and how people have tried throughout history to decipher the mysteries of why children are similar to their parents. The broader, more global answer  reminded everyone in the room how the way we think and talk about heredity has affected us all.

Like his interview, Zimmer’s book is deeply personal and broadly relevant. Zimmer approaches the topic from all angles. He writes about sequencing his personal genome and about his own family history, but also how sequencing genomes has taught society about our human migrations and the ways family pedigrees have taught us about diseases.

As a geneticist, I have more than average familiarity with a lot of what Zimmer covers in this book. And yet I learned far more than I expected—not just about Zimmer himself, but also about the roots of a scientific field I’ve been a part of for years. Roots of our society connect to the roots of genetics in ways that I never learned in Biology 101.

Did you know that Charlie Chaplin (the slapstick comedian you may know and love) brought the first paternity case based on blood tests to court? Or that the Russet Burbank potato (the potato that forms those McDonald’s French fries you may know and love) was the result of a genius plant breeder Luther “The Wizard of Horticulture” Burbank? Burbank didn’t really know what he was doing on a genetics level but he made a lot of money on potatoes anyway.

This is the magic in She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. Zimmer reels you in with well-known historical characters, his own life, and elements from his readers’ lives,  connecting them seamlessly with the history of genetics. It’s a book that feels huge and all-encompassing, but often incredibly personal, too. After all, what is more personal than a genome?

Zimmer gets his own genome sequenced and describes the experience of having it analyzed as a bit of a letdown. If your genetic counselor doesn’t find anything of note in your genome, it’s probably a good thing—but maybe not very exciting. Perhaps luckily, Zimmer uses his own experience to tackle a huge, complicated, and controversial topic: race.

There’s no evidence supporting the concept of “biological race,” but the social concept of race (and of course, racism) certainly does exist. Zimmer describes the history of the human migration out of Africa as it is currently believed to have happened and connects it to the generations upon generations of people stretching back behind him towards “Y-chromosomal Adam” and “Mitochondrial Eve”—the earliest man and woman, respectively, that our DNA points us towards. This is just one of many examples where the tale of an individual’s experience (Zimmer getting his genetic data handed to him on a hard drive) morphs into the story of humanity.

Although the weight of my backpack with this book in it might suggest otherwise, reading She Has Her Mother’s Laugh never felt like a burden. It is a big, big book full of stories and facts, but it never feels dense. Zimmer writes with clarity and humor, and  effortlessly connects the large to the small. If a family member or friend asks me why I think small, invisible things are so interesting, I’ll take all of the sticky notes out of this book, slide it across the table, and let them read it for themselves.