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!

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!

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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Connect with Sarah at sciencebookreviews@gmail.com