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!

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. 


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.

Journalist Rachel Nuwer Takes Readers Into the World of Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

I am thrilled to share today’s guest review of Poached (Sept 2018) by Rachel Love Nuwer. Our reviewer Kimberly Riskas brings us a fascinating look into the world of wildlife trafficking through Nuwer’s book. I think you will enjoy reading her thoughts as much as I did.

About the Reviewer:

Kimberly Riskas is a freelance science writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She is passionate about the environment and has spent most of the last decade working on field-based marine conservation projects. Her PhD on illegal fishing took her to Southeast Asia and piqued her interest in wildlife trafficking. She has written for The Conversation, Cosmos Magazine, Sciworthy and others. Follow her on Twitter at @KimberlyRiskas.

It’s an uncomfortable fact: humans are hunting, trading, collecting, and eating Earth’s wildlife out of existence. Trade in animals and their parts is now a global, multi-billion-dollar enterprise, satiating consumer demand for wildlife-derived luxury items, traditional medicine, and pets. But much of this trade is illegal, and demand shows no immediate signs of dying off. With the fate of so many species tied to humankind’s dubious moral compass, what does the future hold? How did things get this bad? And, more importantly, what should we do next?

Conservation ecologist-turned-journalist Rachel Love Nuwer mounts a globe-trotting investigation to answer these questions in her new book, Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking. The result is an absorbing and powerful book that lays bare the forces driving the global wildlife trade. Part travelogue, part meticulous exposé, Poached is an unflinching, first-hand account that is at once confronting, engrossing, and—unexpectedly—full of hope.

To delve into the subject of wildlife trafficking is to open a Pandora’s box of complexity, but Nuwer guides her narrative with a masterful hand. In the book’s first pages, we meet a Vietnamese hunter haunted by nightmares of the animals he has killed. When we learn that he started hunting to finance treatment for his young son’s illness, we begin to see that this dark world may not be so black and white after all.

Later, in Hanoi, we meet a young Vietnamese architect who, defying Nuwer’s expectations of an educated millennial, uses tiger bone paste, bear bile, and rhino horn for medicinal purposes under direction of his trusted family doctor. While there is an understandable (if Western) tendency to villainize poachers and users, Nuwer has a remarkable ability to highlight their humanity. In a South African prison, she finds herself feeling sorry for a homesick Thai man jailed for his involvement with a barely-legal rhino hunting scheme. Though clearly an animal lover, she refrains from making outright value judgments on these people; as we are shown throughout the book, culture and circumstance are powerful motivations, and changing either is a slow process.

Besides, players in the global wildlife trade are as diverse as the animals they exploit. Those actually doing the poaching—like the Vietnamese hunter—are at the bottom of the hierarchy, often trapped in a cycle of poverty that encourages further killing. Further up are the fences, middlemen, dealers, and distributors, who may or may not operate within organised crime syndicates. Add to this list the corrupt police officers, customs agents, airline employees, and politicians turning a blind eye, and the sheer magnitude of the trade stands out with devastating clarity.

There is an international law against wildlife trafficking, but its implementation is not perfect—as Nuwer discovers when she attends a meeting of its signatories. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (or CITES, for short) is plagued by infighting and last-minute deal brokering. Getting everyone to agree to protect a species can be a slow task. Even when positive decisions are made, Nuwer’s former colleague Daniel Wilcox points out that “it’s then up to countries to actually follow through, which is something entirely different.”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with despair at this point, you are not alone. Nuwer herself gives voice to this anguish in a tragicomedic aside: “Oh god, I thought. The animals are all gonna die.” But the antidote to this pessimism comes in the form of the people working tirelessly on the ground. We are introduced to a pantheon of passionate men and women dedicating their lives to stopping the slaughter. We are also reminded of the steep cost paid by those trying to protect animals—exemplified the story of Esnart Paundi, a ranger who was hacked to death by machete-wielding elephant poachers in Zambia.

Despite the gravity of the topic, Poached also includes some beautifully poignant moments. At Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Nuwer meets Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on Earth. Unsure of how to react during her photo-op with the doomed beast, she becomes reflective:

“Beneath Sudan’s bark-like skin, I could feel the slow heaves of his breath. 
I turned and smiled awkwardly at Tim, who had volunteered to be my photographer, unsure of whether I should look somber or happy. It was hard not to think of the finality of extinction in the presence of this deceptively placid animal, who stood so very close to the black hole of oblivion.

“‘Bye Sudan,’ I quietly said instead. ‘Thanks.’” 

Whether you are a die-hard conservationist or a complete newcomer to the field, Poached is a compelling read. Nuwer’s narration is fact laden but well-paced, with gory details used carefully to preserve their impact. The autobiographical glimpses she provides paint a picture of an impressive but endearingly relatable human (jet-lagged, she yearns to sneak a car nap in between interviews at a South African rhino farm). If empathy for others is the way to save the world’s remaining wildlife, then Poached should be required reading by anyone with skin in the game—which is to say, all of us.

Guest reviewers bring new perspectives and important voices to Read More Science. I am always looking for reviewers. Please let me know you are interested and which book you might like to review by sending an email to Sarah at sciencebookreviews@gmail.com.

Neuroscientist’s Award-Winning Book Explores the Science of the Teenage Brain

Source: The Guardian, photo by Graeme Robertson

Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by award-winning neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore received this year’s Royal Society Investment Science Book Prize. Through her own research, Blakemore reveals the secrets of the adolescent brain in her important book.

Adolescence is biologically defined as the period after which puberty has began to the point at which an individual reaches biological adulthood, around 25 or 27. In her book, Blakemore shares with readers why these developmental years are so crucial for making us into who we are as adults – and why our brains continue to develop from late adolescence onward. Blakemore, a neuroscientist specializing in adolescence, shares her expertise and insight on this.

Perhaps what is most striking about Blakemore’s book is the fact that she draws largely upon her own research. In addition to citing other studies that support her own conclusions, Blakemore’s firsthand experience studying cognitive development in adolescents make her her own most credible source. She’s fully invested in the subject matter of her book, and passionately advocates for taking the behavior of teenagers and young adults more seriously than our society does. We should not be shrugging off such an important developmental stage in our lives — besides, we were all kids at one point.

Blakemore’s writing is reflective on her personal experiences as well as her studies, which she outlines in clear, specific detail. She carefully recounts interesting approaches, findings, and conclusions, speaking in plain and straightforward language. All of this is very useful and informative to the reader, who for the first few chapters will be interested and fascinated by her work. But what Blakemore’s book seems to lack from start to finish are any profound observations that lend further meaning to her book than “Hey guys, let’s not shrug off teenagers just because they’re hormonal”. I kept waiting for a stroke of insight, a moment of surprise, or something climactic. But perhaps because I am young – still technically an adolescent in biological terms – I kept reading her conclusions and thinking, yeah, that makes sense, but didn’t we know that already?

However, the empathy and understanding through which Blakemore approaches her subject matter in this book is simple and wonderful. She earnestly wishes for teenagers to be taken more seriously than they are. Her intended audience appears to be adults who wish to better understand the adolescent brain, and her intention is to disband popular and misleading assumptions about teenage behaviors through sharing  important research on cognitive development. But her book isn’t astoundingly captivating or something that someone without a keen interest in science or the subject matter would be willing to pick up and pour over. Perhaps because of the award I expected something phenomenal – and Inventing Ourselves is certainly groundbreaking – but not my cup of tea.

I would recommend this book if you’re looking for an intellectual read and can take your time with it. I would definitely recommend it if you’ve got any stake in better understanding the brains of adolescents – if you have teenagers or if you are a counselor, or otherwise interested in psychology and neuroscience in adolescence.

Inventing Ourselves cover.jpg

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 and 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.


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.

Do you want to win your own brand-new copy of Spying on Whales? 

Sign up for the Read More Science Book Club to be entered for a chance to win Nick Pyenson’s book — plus two science stickers from Two Photon art! By subscribing, you’ll also be automatically entered in the club’s monthly book giveaways.

Journey through the Alimentary Canal with Mary Roach


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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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!

Marine Biologist MELISSA CRISTINA MÁRQUEZ Shares Her Favorite Ocean-Inspired Books

Today I am extremely excited to introduce you to Melissa Cristina Márquez, a marine biologist and shark expert who engages in thoughtful science communication on Twitter; she will be debuting on Shark Week this month and is excited to share with you the books that have impacted her.

Melissa Cristina Márquez is a Latina marine biologist and wildlife educator with a BA (Hons) in Marine Ecology and Conservation degree from New College of Florida, USA and an MSc in Marine Biology from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. She is a TEDx speaker, founder of The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), host of the Spanish marine conservation podcast ConCiencia Azul (concienciaazulpodcast.weebly.com), and freelance environmental contributor. Márquez can be seen as a co-host on Shark Week 2018, is currently gearing up to go to Antarctica in 2019, and is writing her first children’s book series that focuses on diversity and inclusion in STEM.


What childhood book inspired you to study marine biology?

Funnily enough, “Chicken Soup for The Ocean Lover’s Soul” by Jack Canfield was one of many books that spiked my curiosity in the ocean. Ever since I was four years old I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, but that book and people’s stories about their varying relationships with the ocean made me want to experience what they had and help others experience it too.


Do you have a favorite book about protecting the ocean?

Marine bio nerd alert, one of my favorite technical book is “Marine Conservation – Science – Policy – and Management” by G. Carleton Ray and Jerry McCormick-Ray.  I like their take on conservation and how it must be “informed by the natural histories of organisms together with the hierarchy of scale-related linkages and ecosystem processes.”

Do you have any recommendations for readers to learn more about the the ocean, its life, and protecting it?

Today’s world is more connected than ever. And while we also read more than ever (our Facebook and Twitter feeds, storylines of favorite video games, news sites about current affairs, celebrities or favorite sports), when looking for books people want to see how something fits into their lives. One way to turn people on to science is to show them how it’s used in their daily lives. Not only that, but the public image of science can be negative thanks to the portrayal of ‘geeky’ scientists in previous books and TV shows — finding ‘cool’ role models to read about can help, such as Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark, etc. Most importantly, however, I think it is vital we let people decide what books they want to read and trust that they will get to read all the science must-reads in their own way, in their own time. Doesn’t hurt to be a good role model, though; when people see someone who is passionate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about science, it will resonate with them. I try to combine interactive media with textbook knowledge through my program, The Fins United Initiative (TFUI; www.finsunited.co.nz), and that seems to hook the kids in (pun intended). Not to mention we also have a book club through our newsletter, as we believe science literacy is very important!

What books would you recommend to readers who are unfamiliar with marine biology but ready to learn more?


The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat by Charles Clover. A non-fiction favourite of mine, the 2009 documentary with the same name was actually based on this book! The #1 threat facing our oceans is overfishing (yes, even over plastic pollution) and this book critiques the modern-day fishing industry and talks about the consequences of overfishing… some we are already seeing today.

Blowfish’s Oceanopedia by Tom ‘The Blowfish’ Hird is one of my recent treasured finds. This book is filled with fascinating facts about what lurks beneath the waves.


The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One by Sylvia A. Earle is another fantastic non-fiction read. It’s an alarming read about the abuse our oceans have suffered, but how there is hope. It’s a National Geographic publication so you know it’s good!  And if you don’t feel like learning and just want to color your own ocean, National Geographic’s Magnificent Ocean – A Coloring Book by Justin Poul is fantastic fun.

LitofSci is working hard to feature books by underrepresented authors. Are there any authors of books on marine biology-related topics that you feel deserve to be included?


Eye of the Shoal by Helen Scales is a wonderful read about our relationship with fish (an animal most people think as slimy, cold or just food) and how it needs to evolve. I absolutely love If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams and adore Shark Lady by Jess Keating who talk about my favorite subject – sharks! – in such a refreshing way. These two dynamite authors really paint sharks and the people who study them in a great light, and highlight their importance in our oceans.

Thank you Melissa for your wonderful reading suggestions! I think a few of these will need to be featured in upcoming book reviews. Readers, remember to tune into Shark Week on Discovery Channel to see Melissa and learn more about sharks! You can also follow her Twitter.

Do you want to support Melissa’s science? She is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign for a trip to Antarctica with an education program. Any amount you can contribute will help her towards reaching this goal.