Exploring the Wilderness Inside Your Home

In biologist Rob Dunn’s new book Never Home Alone, he introduces readers to the visible and microscopic organisms composing an indoor ecosystem, discussing what we know (and don’t know) about the creatures that share our homes.

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live. Rob Dunn (Nov 2018) Source

If you enjoyed I Contain Multitudes, this book should be next on your reading list. Just like Ed Yong shows readers the fascinating microorganisms all around us, Dunn opens our eyes to the minute creatures that live within the confinement of our own homes. Drawing largely from his own research as a biologist, and backing up his claims with other relevant research, Dunn discusses what lives in the ecosystem of the home. From the bacteria lurking on shower heads, to drain flies, crickets, and spiders, Dunn investigates everything he can find — whether it’s benign, beneficial, or potentially malicious.

While this wilderness in miniature is fascinating, I was most surprised to learn that some of these organisms — many, in fact — are actually waiting to be “discovered”, if someone would take the time to look more closely at them:

“The discovery that almost a billion thumb-sized Japanese camel crickets were living in houses without anyone really knowing they were present left me a bit dumbfounded,” Dunn writes. “If you aren’t a scientist and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume scientists know what it is. If you are a scientist, but not an entomologist, and you see a camel cricket in your house, you assume that entomologists know what it is. If you are an entomologist and you see a camel cricket in your house you assume the specialists in camel crickets know what that is.”

But this mindset — assuming someone else already knows about a certain organism — can be problematic.

“Meanwhile, just two people on Earth specialize in the study of camel crickets and neither of them happens to live in a house where the Japanese species is present,” Dunn adds, almost humorously. “I started to wonder whether this phenomenon — of assuming someone else knows — is likely to be more common in homes than other habitats, more common because homes are the place we are most likely to assume that someone else knows, most likely to assume that everything is under control.”

If Dunn’s idea is true, and we can indeed find new species right in our own homes and backyards, it could have important ramifications for science.

Dunn continues: “If I was right, it meant that not only was the home a place where it was still possible to make new discoveries but also it might be an ideal place to make discoveries, discoveries that, because they implicitly affect many people, would be important.”

But why is this discovery of new species inside our homes important? What makes the critters that crawl in our basement and on our walls so alluring to Dunn and his team? As it turns out, many of these species hold clues inside them — clues that can teach us how to create new technologies, medicines, and even prevent allergies. But unless we study these organisms purposefully, Dunn argues, we won’t unlock their secrets.

One of the more interesting species that Dunn discusses is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is notorious for sneaking into the guts of cats by manipulating the behavior of mice. More interesting is the implication of whether these parasites, after infiltrating humans by way of us cleaning the cat litter box, affect human behavior. I was hoping that Dunn may have some insightful theory or perhaps new information about the species explored in Kathleen McAuliffe’s book This Is Your Brain on Parasites, but he had little to offer in way of enlightening information or opinion. It seems the mystery of this parasite is yet to be solved.

Other than that, I have no complains about Dunn’s book. It was well-paced, fascinating, and made for wonderful holiday-break reading. I particularly enjoyed that Dunn shared a lot about his own research as well as his students – it’s always nice when a scientist talks about the important work his student assistants do and their contribution to their studies.

Overall, Dunn’s most recent book is makes for a fascinating and entertaining read. I encourage you to look for a copy at your local bookstore!


The 2018 Read More Science Book of the Year

This week I announced the nominees for the first Read More Science “Best Book of the Year”, my humble attempt to recognize outstanding science writing for the general public by an author who may represent a minority in the STEM fields. You can see the full list of nominees in my announcement.

The Read More Science Best Book of the Year is simply a way to acknowledge a book I see as incredibly relevant to our modern day, accessible for general readers, and deserving of more recognition. While I cannot possibly acknowledge every science book deserving of more recognition (as much as I would love to do that!), I hope that this effort will put the book in the hands of more readers.

I am pleased to announce that the recipient of this year’s award is Hannah Fry’s Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms

Hello World is incredibly relevant to today’s world and extremely accessible for readers who may never have read a pop science or technology book before. In easily comprehensible and succinct examples, Fry clearly defines algorithms, machine learning, neural networks, and artificial intelligence. Her book also addresses how our data is being used – gathered, sold, and manipulated in order to influence our behavior as consumers. If you’ve ever wondered why ads seem to target your previous purchases, if you’ve ever considered why so many apps are free and want to know what you’re exchanging your data for, then this is the book for you. Fry’s warm and down-to-earth voice guides readers through the tricky technology of our modern world, paying special attention to how the biases of programmers can infect the algorithms they design and lead to social injustices.

As a woman in mathematics and computer science, Hannah Fry provides younger women with an excellent role model. I also felt that she deserved recognition on the basis that she spends so much time dissecting how algorithms may be used in the justice system and how we can prevent our own racial and gender biases from affecting their objectivity. Her attention to such relevant social issues is a significant reason I chose Hello World for this year’s prize – in many ways, the book is an excellent representation of our world in 2018.


Announcing the First Annual Read More Science “Book of the Year”


Big-name male science writers have long dominated the bestseller lists of the New York Times and other large and well-known book review sources. With this award, my intention is to highlight and promote excellent and overlooked science writing by authors who may be minorities in the STEM fields. 

I’ve started the annual Read More Science “Book of the Year” as a way to acknowledge a new release in popular science that appeals to general readers by an author who deserves more recognition. The book will be featured in the last newsletter of the year (just in time for the holidays) and displayed on the home page of readmorescience.com along with a short summary of why it was chosen. Although there will not be a “prize”, I will be promoting the book through social media and hope to provide a sticker of some kind as the award evolves. 

Without further ado, it is my pleasure to share the books that are under consideration:

Nominees for the 2018 Read More Science “Book of the Year” 

If 2018 could be described by a single phrase, it might be “overlooked no more”. This year gave us several wonderful histories of women who made significant contributions to the STEM fields but haven’t received proper recognition for their work. This year’s books also addressed biases both gender and racial in the fields of technology, artificial intelligence, sex robots, medicine, and the history of science itself. These books challenged conventional thought, delighted and outraged readers, and inspired varying degrees of controversy. These books are each truly a testament to the state of our world in 2018. I wish I could have featured more, because there were many books deserving of recognition!

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini


Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin

Source

Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms by Hannah Fry


Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder


Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans


Close Encounters With Humankind: A Paleoanthropologist Investigates our Evolving Species by Sang-Hee Lee

Source

There you have it — this year’s nominees. I will be announcing the winning title this week, and those signed up for the Read More Science newsletter will be the first to receive the announcement. Get signed up and you’ll be automatically entered to win exciting titles like these every month! 

Three New Technology Books About Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence

Last week was computer science education week, and these three books are perfect for those of us curious about how algorithms, artificial intelligence, and robots really work — and how they first came about.

In British mathematician Hannah Fry’s award-winning new book Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms (Sept 2018), she dissects algorithms and AI, indulging readers in how our own data is being used and, quite possibly, abused.

In science historian Adrienne Mayor’s new book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (Nov 2018), Mayor presents readers with science folklore at its finest. Who first came up with the idea of robots, anyway? 

Lastly, Kate Devlin’s book (out this month!) is called Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots and it’s everything you could ever hope for in a book about sexy automatons. Maybe not one to let the kids get a hold of, but definitely one that will spark conversations with coworkers while you’re reading it on your lunch break.

1. Hello World by Hannah Fry

When I picked up a copy of Hello World from the bookstore I work at, I’ll admit I was very nervous. Last month, I was on a streak with reading one disappointing book after another. I kept feeling like the books I was reading weren’t something I wanted to spend time writing a review for. But disappointing streaks happen to every avid reader now and then, and they are usually broken by something stunningly absorbing and well-written. For me, that was Hannah Fry’s Hello World. 

Fry’s debut book reads like a casual conversation full of warmth, intelligence, and wit. She expertly guides readers through basic and essential concepts for understanding how algorithms function and what purpose they serve. Her book is also the first popular science book I have come across to concisely explain artificial intelligence and neural networks. As a result, the reader comes away feeling informed without being talked down to. Fry is not only an associate professor of mathematics and a computer scientist, she’s also aware of the society in which she’s writing – readers can trust they’re in the hands of an expert as well as an individual who is socially conscious. 

For example, Fry investigates what happens when algorithms programmed for justice are actually racial-profiling. How can we make an algorithm that relies on statistics, unbiased? Fry discusses the problems with having a human judge determine whether or not to sentence someone. Could an algorithm better predict whether someone is guilty, whether they should be released in the future, and even how long their sentence should be? But we tend to want a human touch in these life-altering decision – should we dare to let algorithms decide for us, we fear they may sentence the innocent or set the guilty free. Of course, that’s already happening with human error.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying about social media, if you aren’t paying for a product, you are the product. Why is Facebook free? And what exactly happens when we let those quizzes access our profiles, anyway? Fry poses these kinds of pertinent questions about our online activities and breaks down exactly what’s happening with your data – and how, in some cases, it’s even being used to manipulate your behavior. 

2. Gods and Robots by Adrienne Mayor

Science historian and folklorist Adrienne Mayor’s new book Gods and Robots is a mesmerizing exploration into the concepts of robots in myth and lore. If you’re a Greek mythology buff or simply interested in how the idea of automated technology came about through ancient storytelling, Mayor does a good job diving into the subject. The book includes beautiful photos to accompany her retelling of the classical tales of Greek and Roman myth.

Mayor makes several connections to modern examples of automated technology, but only in passing comments. This book is much more about the ancient history of robots. After all, Mayor is not a computer scientist. But the book is nicely done overarching exploration into classical tales of automation.

You can read my full review of it for Science Magazine here.

3. Turned On by Kate Devlin

In this tantalizingly entertaining and witty book, sex-bot expert Kate Devlin examines the past, present, and future and sex robots and AI. Combining humorous anecdotes with sobering philosophical questions, Devlin expertly guides readers through the fascinating controversy around robots designed for pleasure. You might find yourself keeling over with laughter one moment and considering the realities of female objectification the next. Through every topic Devlin will be there holding your hand, howling with laughter and outrage alongside you. 

Most of all I love Devlin’s attention towards detail – she cares deeply about the material she discusses. One chapter mentions the bond between humans and our pets and whether we may have a similar bond with robots one day. This triggered a childhood memory of a FurReal Friends Lulu My Cuddlin Kitty cat I had back when I was eight or nine years old. I loved that robot cat like I loved my real cat. When I stroked her, she rumbled with an electric purr and moved to your touch. If you ignored her for too long she would let out a soft, sad “meow”. You could scratch her and she would move her head back and forth. Then I accidentally left batteries in too long and they were destroyed by acid, so my dad took Lulu away and threw her out. I remember feeling so devastated over losing my “little robot kitty”, as I called her.

The ethical and moral implications of not only befriending robots or treating them as pets is one thing. It’s quite another when we model robots after female humans and use them for sex. After all, can a robot consent? These questions and more are explored in Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots, out on December 18th. 


Find these books and more popular science at your local bookstore. 

Sarah McAnulty on SciComm, Squids, and her Cephalopod Coloring Book

I’m excited to announce that the last book giveaway of 2018 is Sarah McAnulty’s The Ink-Credible Cephalopod Coloring Book. In order to get entered to win a brand new copy of the coloring book, courtesy of the creator herself, you’ll need to sign up for the Read More Science Book Club, my monthly newsletter for science enthusiasts. Instead of coming out at the end of the month as usual, for December the newsletter will be put out early due to holidays at the end of the year. So keep an eye out for it! Due to shipping costs around the holidays, this particular giveaway is limited to the U.S. only. 

Now, without further ado, I am thrilled to bring you an interview with the coloring book creator herself. 

ABOUT SARAH MCANULTY

Sarah McAnulty (she/her) is a squid biologist and science communicator living in Willimantic, CT. She is the founder of SkypeAScientist.com. Learn more about her adventures with squid and #SciComm on her website, or follow her on Twitter for more fascinating squid facts at @SarahMackAttack


How did the idea to make a coloring book themed around cephalopods come about? I recently became a godmother to my cousin’s son Owen and that caused me to start looking at kids’ books. I noticed that octopuses were everywhere but where the heck were all the squid?  I also noticed that people loved when I tweeted simple straightforward facts about cool cephalopods, so I thought maybe I could bring these facts into a book that works for kids and adults! The beauty of the cephalopods is that they have existed for over 500 million years, so they’ve had a LOT of time to develop some really cool approaches to life. The cephalopods are varied and have some totally bananas adaptations. Usually nature shows and kids books feature octopuses but skip over the fantastic squid the world has to offer — I figured it was time to change that. I’m currently a graduate student studying molecular and cell biology, and I’ve found that having a side-project that has an art component is an awesome way for me to relax after thinking about science all day. This was just a perfect storm of a project for me. 

Did you encounter any surprises or challenges while working on your coloring book? I generally just totally underestimated the amount of time involved in making a coloring book!  I got the fact part sorted out pretty quick (I’m effectively a random cephalopod fact generator), but getting the lines all right and then editing and adding finishing touches, like adding a pencil for scale for all the animals took a while. I had some folks edit the manuscript and they were hugely helpful, especially fellow squid biologists and science communicators Casey Zakroff and Danna Staaf. Their comments absolutely made my book stronger. 

Adult-friendly coloring books are quite popular right now. It’s an exciting idea to use them for science communication. Can you discuss the message you hope people get from this book, and maybe why everyday fans of coloring books would enjoy learning about cephalopods?  I want people to have fun while learning about some cool animals they’ve never heard of before!  I find that a lot of adult coloring books have these itsy bitsy little things to color, and I totally get why people think that’s relaxing but they totally stress me out. I made my coloring book with bigger spaces for people to color. Cephalopods are constantly changing their body pattern so it seemed silly to make people draw one particular pattern on their skin anyway. I think it might be fun for people to look these animals up to so they can see the broad and beautiful range of colors these animals can be.  Even though it’s a whole book about cephalopods, people are going to get a wide variety of cool information from the book because cephalopods are all so different from each other. They inhabit almost every marine ecosystem on the planet, so they need super varied lifestyles. Another added bonus? It’s hard to color in the “wrong” color for a cephalopod- they’re always changing 🙂

What’s on your shelf right now? Do you have a favorite cephalopod book, or any recommendations for our readers? Right now I have two books I’m actively reading, but I definitely have some other suggestions if you’re into Cephalopods. I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen L. Brusatte, and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I generally try to keep one fun one and one make-me-better one simultaneously. If you’re into cephalopods, there are some GREAT popular science ones out there. My two favorites are Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire, and Wendy Williams’ Kraken: the Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of SquidSquid Empire was published last year and is so great. Danna is a great and funny writer. She tells the tale of the evolution of squid. I never even thought I would be all that interested in extinct cephalopods until I picked up that book, and I couldn’t put it down.  Kraken is also totally fantastic, it tells the story of squid science through the lens of the scientists who study them. It’s full of great stories about people but still teaches you a lot about the animals themselves. It’s a wonderful read.

Illustrations from The Ink-Credible Cephalopod Coloring Book. Image courtesy of Sarah McAnulty

You’re a squid biologist and an active cephalopod science communicator with a substantial following. How did you end up in that? Do you have any thoughts on how communicating science can be practiced in everyday life? I wish I could say I had some grand plan all along, but this just kinda happened! I’ve always been super excitable about cephalopods and I’ve always been the first person to bring them up at a party, but the Twitter thing just kinda took off. I was doing a crowdfunding effort back in my second year of grad school to support our lab and during that time I was interacting with the public and explaining my work more than I ever had before. I realized I was having more fun doing that than doing science, and I was having plenty of fun doing science. After the crowdfunding effort was over, I continued to engage the public during down-time at work, and the community kept building. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring science communicators? I think that the biggest piece of advice I can give anyone starting out in science communication is to be yourself, and always keep learning. I think it’s useful to just play around and see where you have the most fun.  Maybe your science communication style is best served visually in comics, maybe it’s easier for you to do stand up or write short, quippy tweets. It’s all about finding where you have the most fun because if you’re having fun and being yourself, it makes communicating your science less of a chore and more just a fun activity. Another really important thing to do is find voices that come from backgrounds unlike yours and listen to what they have to say. It’s important to learn from other people and their life experiences. It helps you connect better with people who aren’t like you, and reminds you that everyone is not in the same bubble as you.


Thank you for your thoughtful answers, Sarah! Readers, you can help support Sarah with her science communication efforts by purchasing a copy of her coloring book on Amazon.