Category Archives: Books

New book illustrates patterns and shapes behind life on Earth

In her new book, Kimberly Ridley pairs beautiful vintage illustrations with essays that detail the role of different phenomena in nature, from small to big organisms. Ridley, a science essayist and science writer, decided to celebrate nature’s most brilliant designers and builders in “Wild Design: Nature Architects”.

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley.

The book has eight chapters with unusual information on everything from beavers to fungi to birds. It’s packed with illustrations — paintings and drawings created by natural historians from the 17th to the 20th centuries. These allow the eye to focus on important features of the natural world, creating a sense of connection to the inner workings of the natural world.

In an interview with ZME Science, Ridley said she wrote the book as a love letter to the natural world and an invitation to readers to see nature with a new set of eyes, rekindling their sense of wonder. There are countless marvels surrounding us, Ridley said, but when we fail to notice them, we become disconnected from the living world

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley

“We often conflate wonder with naivete, but I think cultivating a sense of wonder is an important survival skill,” Ridley told ZME Science. “I wrote Wild Design to speak to that sense of wonder, which I find on my daily walks. I want to gently take readers by the hand and show them nature’s gorgeous and brilliant designs all around us.”

From the intricate weave of an oriole’s nest and the winged elegance of maple seeds to the ingenious “cases” of caddisfly larvae, which they meticulously construct from pebbles and sand, there are gorgeous and brilliant designs all around us, Ridley explains. “The more I thought about design in nature, the more curious I became,” she added.

The idea of the book originated from Ridley’s own curiosity, as she started to come up with questions regarding nature’s architects. She discovered many design wonders that are right under our noses. She wrote most of the book in her own backyard in Maine. “I set up a table, chair, and my laptop and got to work,” she says.

The role of illustrations

Ridley said she discussed several illustration possibilities with her editor, but that from early on she wanted to use natural history illustrations. This is for several reasons. First, she wanted Wild Design to feel like a miniature cabinet of illustrations. Second, because the illustrations are wonders themselves, created by hand and sometimes in the field

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley

“I wanted the visual narrative of this book to present a glimpse of the visual expression in the heyday of natural history exploration and discovery. These amazing works were central to scientific discovery, and introduced the public to the wonders of the living world,” Ridley told ZME Science. “I want this book to invite readers to slow down and observe.”

Ridley said creating this book opened her eyes wider and deepened her sense of wonder for the wild world around us. The book has helped her appreciate more deeply the interconnectedness of all life. Now, on her hikes along the rocky coast where she lives, she has a new appreciation of geology and is always looking for bird nests and admiring fungi.

Her own new experiences with nature are what she hopes happens with everyone who reads the book, which invites them to explore nature’s beauty, strangeness, and mystery in their own back yards or parks. Nature is a living library, Ridley concludes, a repository of knowledge that has accumulated through billions of years through evolution.

“Nature’s wild designers offer how-to manuals and encyclopedias for helping to solve human design challenges without creating pollution or trashing the neighborhood. So, I hope this small book inspires awareness on every level,” she added.

How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideals Scale: ‘The Voltage Effect’

What’s the one thing that high-growth companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have in common? All of these companies started out with just their founders toiling at their idea in their humble garages, only to grow their market-cap past the trillion-dollar range in only a few decades. While each of these unicorn’s business trajectories is unique, their common secret sauce is building products and services that scale.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost half of all businesses fail during their first year. And there are a lot of reasons why a company can go under, including poor management, insufficient capital, or not a large enough market. One often-overlooked reason for failure though is overexpansion. That’s because scaling is hard. Really hard.

And it’s not just companies that can get into big trouble. Like many governments, research institutes, and charities are painfully aware, a policy, study, or campaign that performs brilliantly in a particular market or demographic can fail miserably when attempting to replicate the same success at scale. The COVID pandemic, for instance, is a living testament to this, evidenced by the widely successful vaccine rollout that saw over 10 billion shots delivered across the world lighting-fast by industry standards, as well as the disappointingly botched contact tracing program done by many countries.

That’s because the road from local to worldwide is paved with many pitfalls. Unless you mind your step, you might get sorely bruised. But what are these pitfalls?

The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale
John A. List
Currency, 288 pages | Buy on Amazon

In his latest book, The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale, John A. List, the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, not only gives a rundown of the leading but often underestimated factors that can make or break the scaling of an idea, but also outlines ways to supercharge it. This also explains the book name, the analogy being that ideas that scale — be they a new government policy meant to improve learning outcomes, a wildlife conservation program to help repopulate an endangered species, or a new restaurant chain — experience “voltage gain” as they scale, meaning it becomes increasingly easier as you expand. Meanwhile, ideas that fail at scaling experience “voltage drops”, with operations becoming increasingly inefficient to the point of reaching an inevitable collapse.

Professor List should know a thing or two about scaling. He served in the White House on the Council of Economic Advisers in the early 2000s under the Bush Administration, where he designed policies that would produce the greatest positive impact on the largest number of American citizens at a fair cost, but also as the chief economist of Uber and, later, at Lyft — two startups that have scaling almost down to an art form. That’s in addition to the over 200 studies List published as a behavioral economist, studying what drives people to make the decisions that they do, from Florida to Costa Rica or from Asia to Africa.

Many think that scalable ideas have a “silver bullet” quality to them that makes them a sure shot, but as Professor List skillfully explains, this thinking is wrong. In the first part of the book, the author outlines and expands on the most important pitfalls that cause voltage drops as an idea is scaled, called the The Five Vital Signs. These are: false positives, misjudging the representativeness of an initial population or situation, spillovers, and prohibitive costs. Along the way, you’ll learn, for instance, how celebrity chef Jamie Oliver did all the right things to expand his restaurant chain to over a dozen countries and why it all came crashing down when he changed his scaling recipe.

The second part tackles the winning concepts that, when applied well, can drive voltage gain like a particle accelerator, including using the right incentives (any behavioral economist’s bread and butter), marginal thinking, scaling culture, and knowing when it’s time to quit on a losing idea. This is the how to make good ideas great part.

All of it is skillfully done thanks to List’s sense for compelling prose and storytelling. While reading this comprehensive book, I found myself turning page after page, as I went through numerous excellent research and case studies, many of which Professor List was personally involved with.

Careful, comprehensive, and fun, The Voltage Effect excels in turning a seemingly boring niche topic into a fascinating book that’s relevant to all, from CEOs and policymakers to naturally curious people with a taste for learning how economics shapes our lives in the real world. 

Book review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

Would you like to have the mind of Shakespeare? Put pen to paper and write your way into fame, forever? Well, dear reader, then this book

This book is not what you’re looking for. It is not a shortcut. It won’t teach you how to craft pretty words or witty lines. It won’t bring you fame on stage or the love of millions. What it does do, and very well, is to take a look at our current system of education and see where its failings lie. Scott Newstock’s message is that thinking like Shakespeare has much less to do with copying his form or his topics, and much more with instilling young minds with the habits and tools they need to become the next Shakespeare.

“How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education”
By Scott Newstok
Princeton University Press, 185 pages | Buy on Amazon.

The world is full of books telling us what to think. There’s no shortage of books telling us how to think, either. But How to Think like Shakespeare is a book that aims to help us think well.

The book is structured in fourteen “deliberately short” chapters, each dealing with an aspect of what Newstok considers to be “key aspects of thinking, and how to hone them”. This book is the product of his own experiences with the U.S. educational system, both internally as a teacher and a professor, and externally, as a parent. Through this exploration, Newstok heavily criticizes what he sees as ineffective or outright damaging trends in education, often campaigned for under the banner of progress through technology, or fairness under standardisation.

Heavily but delightfully peppered with great quotes from great minds throughout history, How to Think like Shakespeare makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Hard figures, charts, graphs, these are not really the meat of the book. And yet, through metaphor and wit, it makes just as compelling an argument as you’d expect from a mathematical proof.

I will confess that, at first, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t like this book. As Newstok himself quips, I did pick up the book hoping for a shortcut, an easy way towards a great mind. Instead, I found that a case was being made for things such as the importance of engaging in past work, in ‘tradition’, to foster creativity. How imitation or outright copying of other’s work can help guide us to our own voice. All of them things that, as a highschooler or college student, I would have dismissed as the uninformed ramblings of a crusty old man out of his time, and out of his depth of understanding. “I,” was my first thought, “have been deceived”.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Both in the way it reads, and in regards to what it has to say. At its core, How to Think like Shakespeare hits upon something that rings undeniably true: education is a very personal act. Screens, standardized tests, optimized ‘learning objectives’ at the head of every lesson, these can be great tools with which to acquire facts, and knowledge — but an education is much more than simple facts.

Newstok looks at the importance of seemingly innocuous factors, such as simply being in the same place and time with teachers, and your class-mates, in shaping our ability to think, and think well. Or, for example, how our obsession with being original, our disdain for plagiarism, actually limits our performance, and stifles creativity. How insisting on efficiency and optimization in the curriculum actually makes us all poorer, intellectually, and how an obsession with assessment and measurement hides the very essence of education from us. Or how, in putting our hopes for a freer and more convenient education in the hands of technology, we’ve lost sight of the fact that thinking aides are not a substitute for thinking.

All in all, this is a book I couldn’t do justice in any way in a simple review. Newstok has a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of literature, insight into why words have power, and an understanding of how to craft them. It presents valuable ideas in an engaging format, and will help you understand both our education systems and your own mind better. It will also give you the tools you need to guide the latter one better, and the insight as to where you want it to go. I thoroughly recommend you give this one a try.

We can fight climate change while staying economically prosperous — just ask the Spirit of Green

Every once in a while, you come across a book that makes you want to reread every other page just to make sure you get it all in. Spirit of Green is that book. In simple and approachable language, the book challenges some of the most complex topics around climate change and the economy, and it does so while being surprisingly optimistic. Spirit of Green is an awareness injection, a crash course on how to think about the environment and the economy.

William Nordhaus isn’t your average economist. It’s not just that he was awarded the Nobel Prize, it’s why he was awarded the prize. Nordhaus is the first economist to win a Nobel Prize for research on climate change, and in doing so, his work offered a lot of legitimacy and support for measures that address climate change.

Nordhaus argued that addressing climate change is more than just an environmental concern, it’s an economic one. His work in the field started in the early 1970s, when, alongside his Yale colleague James Tobin, he introduced the first measure of environmental accounting. When something affects the environment, the two argued, it also affects the economy — because the environment affects the economy. In the 1990s, Nordhaus also worked on a model assessing the interplay between the economy and the climate, attempting to quantify how different climate policies (like carbon taxes) will affect the economy.

Brick by Brick, Nordhaus and his peers laid the foundation of the economics of the environment. There’s a lot of arguing now in this field, particularly when it comes to numbers. Economists debate how big a carbon tax should be, how much pollution costs, and what are the most effective approaches to limit our emissions — but in the grand scheme of things, they generally agree with the principle of those things, they just argue about the specifics. Thanks to the work of pioneers like Nordhaus, economists are well aware of the importance of climate policies, although politicians may not like this.

In Spirit of Green, Nordhaus takes things one step further. For most people, calculations on how a carbon tax should work are hardly appealing, but understanding why such a tax is important and why it would be fair is a bit more interesting.

Think of it this way: if a company (say, a mining company) produces pollution as part of their daily activity, they’re causing a detriment to the local community — and thanks to environmental regulations, they have to pay for it. You could argue how much should be paid, but the principle of paying for imposing a cost on others is well embedded into modern society.

This is called an externality. Any time the effect of the production of goods and services imposes costs on others, we have a negative externality. Many negative externalities are related to environmental costs, and many of them aren’t covered by anyone, which often means that society ends up paying as a whole, instead of whoever is responsible. When activities produce greenhouse gases, for instance, they’re contributing to climate change, which has a very real, tangible cost, that we will all play. So wouldn’t it be fair that whoever is producing the greenhouse gases pays up to cover their own negative effects?

You can go even deeper. Burning fossil fuels has been shown to cause damage to crops, materials, and public health. So again, there are very tangible costs to burning fossil fuels, but these costs aren’t borne by those that produce or use the fossil fuels, they’re borne by others.

As Nordhaus explains, not only does this type of thinking help reduce environmental damage, but it can also help us achieve economic prosperity. When producers pay for things like negative externalities it doesn’t make the economy more rigid, it makes it more efficient by helping us value things at their fair price. A gallon of gasoline isn’t just what you pay at the pump — it’s what you pay at the pump plus the negative externalities.

Spirit of Green dives into a lot of topics like negative externalities, drawing conclusions and practical lessons that are essential for modern society. Nordhaus is not a man of ideology, he is a man of evidence. Effective climate policy is “a question of balance”, he says. Yet despite all its evident merits, the book (a decade in the works) seems just a touch unambitious.

It stops shy of addressing some of the key environmental challenges and, although surprisingly optimistic and upbeat, sometimes seems to hint at our society’s political inability. It sometimes feels that despite having access to the technological, scientific, and economic levees required to tackle environmental problems, we lack the resolve to pursue them. Perhaps this is why Spirit of Green (and presumably, Nordhaus himself) stops short of strong ambition: because the likelihood of achieving it in the current political climate seems unlikely, and focusing on goals within grasp is more reasonable. Whether this is one of the book’s strong points or its only weakness is hard to say.

This is not to say that the book lacks boldness entirely. Nordhaus doesn’t shy away from mentioning that markets alone won’t stop global warming, and state intervention is required; he challenges many “business as usual” scenarios head-on; and calls out the “brown” behavior of many companies.

Overall, Spirit of Green is a comprehensive, balanced, and important book. It’s better than most courses taught at universities. Whether you’re a policymaker, an economist, an activist, or just someone genuinely concerned about the current state of affairs, I genuinely recommend the book. Hopefully, some of Nordhaus’ optimism will rub off on the rest of us.

Book review: ‘Information: A Historical Companion’

“Information: A Historical Companion”
Edited by Ann Blair, Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing, and Anthony Grafton
Princeton University Press, 904 pages | Buy on Amazon

In 1964, media theorist Marshall McLuhan declared that he was living in the “age of information.” Little did he know, however, how much the birth of the World Wide Web would influence the volume of data we share today. In 2020, in the already classical “internet minute,” people sent more than 40 million messages through WhatsApp, posted 350,000 stories on Instagram, and shared 150,000 photos on Facebook.

How did we end up producing so much information? How did we learn to process it, search it and store it? These are some of the questions the book ‘Information, A Historical Companion’ edited by Ann Blair, Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing, and Anthony Grafton tried to answer. Its essays, written by academics from all around the world, tell the story of information beginning with ancient societies. Authors take us through East Asia, early modern Europe, the medieval Islamic world, but also North America. The book’s 13 chapters offer chronological narratives, discussing how information shaped the world as we know it. They are followed by more than 100 entries that focus on concepts, tools, and methods related to information.

The book also describes more recent developments in the field, including algorithms, intellectual property, privacy, databases, censorship, and propaganda. It also looks at capitalism, information circles, and the crisis of democracy, explaining some of the most famous theories academics and technologists came up with.

The thirteenth chapter, on communication and computation, presents Babbage’s Difference Engine, Claude Shannon’s influential “theory of communication,” and Vannevar Bush’s “memex” device for storing information, which originally appeared in his 1945 article “As We May Think.” It also describes more recent ideas, including the TCP/IP networking protocol, ARPANET, and WWW. None of today’s technologies would have existed without these early innovations.

The book is also an invitation to ponder upon the belief that the abundance of information would lead to increased democracy and a better life for us all. It showcases the thoughts of J.C.R. Licklider and Douglas Engelbart, who said that technology would set us free, believing that information feeds democracy.

“The optimism that runs through these claims has to confront the contrary feelings that rather than more information being a good thing, it can be highly problematic; and that while control over information may be beneficial, we are often in danger of being controlled by information and the algorithms it feeds,” writes Paul Duguid. “Both the optimistic and the pessimistic views have a curiously long history.”

At the end of the chapter, Duguid put the reason for writing this book in a nutshell: “Perhaps, after all, the dots of our ‘information age’ are more closely connected to the past than those who deem history irrelevant realize.”

“What is a bird” — an entire museum captured inside a book

What Is a Bird?: An Exploration of Anatomy, Physiology, Behavior, and Ecology
by Tony D. Williams // Princeton University Press
Buy on Amazon

We don’t often give birds much thought, other than wondering what it would be like to fly about without a care in the world. But birds, these stunning winged dinosaurs, warrant more than a romantic idea — and they rarely fly without a care in the world.

For starters, birds are in a constant struggle to manage their resources. They tend to consume a lot of energy by flying and constantly need to replenish it. In order to do this, they’ve developed specialized adaptations, like hollow bones or the ability to drink seawater — adaptations that have enabled them to survive in almost all the environments on the planet. Birds have conquered not only the sky but also the earth.

A worthy book about birds

From the urban birds we see in our backyards to the exotic beauties we only get to see in documentaries, they all have something worthwhile about them. Whether it’s their complex mating rituals or their ability to adapt to urban environments, birds truly are remarkable. What is a bird does them justice: it showcases anatomy and behavior with scientific accuracy while keeping things brief and simple so that it’s easy to follow.

The book features hundreds of colorful illustrations and photography, intertwining bits of text with lavish photos that make reading (or skimming) the book feel pleasant.

Explanations are also accompanied by descriptive figures. Skim the book for a few seconds and you can enjoy its lovely photos. Read it carefully and you’ll probably be surprised at how much information it contains. From detailed sketches of birds’ biology to explanations of how they poop, it’s all in there.

What is a bird walks the reader through different features of birds, looking at their biology (how they breathe, what they eat, how they fly so efficiently) and their ecology (including the threats they face from human activity). It zooms in on unseen details in their anatomy using microscope photography, and it zooms out to have a look at the big picture.

Yet for all this, it doesn’t really feel like a book — it feels more like a museum. It’s as if you walk through the different rooms, see the exhibits, and read a bit about it without feeling any pressure. It feels relaxing and absorbing, and if you ask me, this is exactly how books of this kind should feel.

Good for all ages

The book is presumably mostly aimed at the armchair naturalist or the amateur birdwatcher. But its scope extends way beyond that.

Because it’s so richly illustrated, I found the book excellently suited for all ages. Growing up and way before I could read, my parents gave me a richly illustrated book on marine wildlife. Maybe it’s the geek in me, but I loved it. I had no idea what the book was actually saying until much later (and to be honest, I only remember bits of that), but the visual imagery stuck with me. What is a bird is exactly that kind of book: it stays with you.

If you’re well-versed in bird biology, you may not take all that much from the book, though even experienced birders may find themselves learning new things. Ultimately, What is a bird can even serve as an atlas, developed by one of the experts in the field of avian biology. The author, Professor Tony Williams, is an experienced researcher, currently focusing on physiological adaptations for breeding in birds.

Ultimately, the book serves as an exploration into the world of birds in more ways than one. It’s a detailed look at what makes a bird a bird as well as a celebration of these remarkable creatures. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a foray into the natural world.

Book Review: ‘A Most Interesting Problem’

A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin’s Descent of Man got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution
Edited by Jeremy DeSilva
Princeton University Press, 288 pages | Buy on Amazon

In 1859, Charles Darwin published what’s arguably the most influential book in modern science: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In this seminal work, Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection — a cornerstone of modern biology — as a mechanism for evolution.

The British naturalist defined evolution as “descent with modification,” by which he meant species change over time, give rise to new species, and share a common ancestor. Organisms with heritable traits that favor survival and reproduction will tend to be more successful and produce more offspring than their peers, causing the traits to increase in frequency over generations — this is the crux of natural selection.

Unsurprisingly, these views, which we now hold for granted, were met with great backlash by Darwin’s peers and Victorian society at large. Although Darwin never addresses the question of human evolution in On the Origins of Species, the implications were obvious. If all species descend with modification, that means humans also descended from a lesser form, which was incongruent with creationist views of the time.

Darwin avoided addressing human evolution on purpose because he needed more time to construct his thesis, being well aware that was a sensitive topic. In 1871, the scientist finally published his follow-up The Descent of Man, in which he attempted to explain human evolution during a time when there were no confirmed fossil records of human ancestors.

What Darwin got right, and what he didn’t

In the book, Darwin prefaced this topic as “the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist.” On this note, in the newly released A Most Interesting Problem, acclaimed scientists present what Darwin got right and what he got horribly wrong about the origin, history, and biological variation of humans 150 years after he wrote his thesis on human evolution.

The book is edited by Jeremy DeSilva, associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College, and features contributions from world-renowned experts in their field. Each chapter is authored by a different researcher discussing modern evidence supporting or countering Darwin’s views.

Unsurprisingly for a scientist of his magnitude with a phenomenal intuition of the natural world, Darwin was spot on with many of his assertions. For instance, his comparative study of living primates led him to claim that humans must have evolved in Africa, which is also .

He also made claims that have now been proven flat out wrong. His most obvious blunders were related to matters of race and sex. Darwin asserted that humans are separated into biological races that follow a hierarchy and that women were biologically inferior to men virtually in every way. Later, these views would be exploited by proponents of eugenics and white-supremacists in the 20th century.

That being said, it’s easy to judge Darwin’s by today’s standards. But during his time, Darwin was no more sexist or racist than his Victorian peers — that was simply the unfortunate status quo.

One can only wonder how the British naturalist must have reacted in the face of confounding evidence. My guess is that he would live by his scientific creed and renounce his previous claims in favor of those supported by evidence such as DNA, brain scans, and the fossils belonging to more than 60 hominins.

Ultimately, A Most Interesting Problem is a fantastic run-down of today’s understanding of human evolution and a great showcase of the scientific process. Science isn’t meant to be perfect, but its self-correcting nature makes it the best tool at our disposal for approximating reality.

Book Review: 1177 BC, The Year Civilization Collapsed

1177 BC: The year civilization collapsed
by Eric Cline
Princeton University Press // Buy on Amazon

“Modern scholars refer to them collectively as the “Sea Peoples,” but the Egyptians who recorded their attack on Egypt never used that term,” Eric Cline poignantly writes in the beginning of his book on what he calls “the most interesting year in history.

We’re over 3,000 years in the past, and the Eastern Mediterranean is riddled with thriving civilizations. The Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Minoans, and Mycenaeans are all vying for progress and power, establishing refined trade routes that build on intermingled and surprisingly advanced civilizations. We’re 3,000 years in the past, and yet the people of the time are surprisingly like us.

Nowadays, we often talk about Ancient Greece and Rome, but a millennium before that, several Mediterranean civilizations had established a Golden Age. They traded with each other, they gave gifts and called on each other for help, and of course, at times, they waged war with each other. Yes, at a time when the Roman Empire was centuries away, these civilizations (including the likes of the mythical Troy) ruled the land with stunning prowess.

They were, argues Cline, much like us. For starters, they had many of the same problems we have today: environmental issues (serious drought), pestilence (COVID-19), a struggle for resources. They were also intertwined in many of the ways that we are today, especially through trade. The Mediterranean Sea made for the perfect place to trade your goods, from gold and silver to more practical aspects like wood and tin. They built monumental architecture so impressive that centuries later, people would believe it was mythical. They had advanced writing systems and wrote their adventures, woes, and plans on pieces of papyrus or clay tablets.

Yet despite all this, they disappeared one after the other almost simultaneously, leaving archaeologists thousands of years later wondering what had happened.

The Sea Peoples

Picture this: in this mosaic of civilizations, a group of mysterious sea marauders enter the stage. We don’t know where they came from, what they did, or even who they were. We just know that they came, in great numbers, and they attacked — and even this, we only know because the Egyptians described it in great detail.

The Egyptians didn’t consider the Sea Peoples a unitary group, instead considering them a sort of marine confederation, but the proof is so scarce that we can’t really be sure who they were. The Egyptians claimed they defeated the Sea Peoples, but it must have been a Pyrrhic victory, because after one war, the Egyptian civilization collapsed into a dark age it took centuries to recover from.

It wasn’t just the Egyptians: one after the other, all civilizations in the area collapsed, for no clear reason. It was like the fall of Rome — an end of civilization and the beginning of a long Dark Age. It’s not clear that 1177 is the year when this happened, but sometime around that year, this transition took place — and it’s as good a placeholder as any.

Could it be that these Sea Peoples, who we don’t even know who they are, could have single-handedly collapsed Bronze Age civilization? For a long time, this is what many archaeologists thought — and some still do. But in Cline’s book, he presents a different hypothesis: it wasn’t just one factor, it was a “perfect storm” of different factors, and the Sea Peoples were just one of them.

For instance, other civilizations don’t really mention the Sea Peoples, but that doesn’t mean they never fought them — it’s possible that we just haven’t found their writings, or they got lost or destroyed. But they do mention other problems, like droughts, diseases, or earthquakes. In the period leading to 1177, they all seemed to suffer from some big problem that brought their demise.

1177 is their story — to the extent that we know it.

A story of times past and present

Cline does an excellent job at setting the stage for these events, not just in terms of integrating archaeological and historic evidence, but also in terms of storytelling. The story features different people (some familiar, like Nefertiti or Tutankhamun, and others unknown), different areas, and many intriguing episodes, and yet despite all this information, it flows effortlessly. It’s not just interesting, it’s enthralling. Reading the book, I found myself wanting to learn more about these people in this period. I was surprised by how much we know about them, and saddened to see how much there’s still to discover.

For instance, one such episode features a king that ruled some 3750 years ago and organized expeditions to bring ice from high in the mountains during the cold season. He also built a special ice house where the ice was kept in a solid state until summertime, where he would enjoy his cooled beverage. Another episode features a military strategy recreated with success by a World War I general, who said he learned it from an ancient Egyptian ruler.

Then, of course, there is the intertwining of myth and history. Troy, the legendary city over which gods and men fought, was a real place, and the boundary between myth and reality is not always clear. Then, there’s the biblical Exodus and how it ties (or doesn’t) with archaeological evidence. The Christian myth of the Flood, copied almost exactly from the Babylonians who had described it a thousand years prior.

It all makes for a gripping reading, where you learn while enjoying the story of one of history’s greatest mysteries. Was it the unknown invaders that shattered these bustling civilizations? Was it a sum of factors? Was it something else entirely? Some parts of the puzzle are still missing, but Cline does a great job of walking through the available evidence, presenting it in an easy-to-follow fashion, and drawing what conclusions can be drawn.

The book does at times feel vague or indeterminate, maybe because that’s just the nature of archaeological evidence. Cline also spends a lot of time building a beautiful picture of the world during the Late Bronze Age, looking at what may have caused this collapse, yet at one point he seems to dismiss it as an inevitable collapse of a complex system, leaving the reader wanting more. Still, it’s a thought-provoking read, and a timely second edition as well. With the ongoing pandemic, we’ve seen just how much our lives can change in a moment. Humans often like to think themselves as invincible. Just like these ancient people, we think our society can bend, but nothing can truly break it. The pandemic is just one aspect — researchers have warned for decades that climate change is looming and it could soon cause catastrophic damage.

1177 BC, The Year Civilization Collapsed, is a remarkable book that brings forth not just a piece of history, but also lessons from the past. It may very well be that drought or war brought an end to their society, and there is a warning there for us as well. Unlike these ancient people, however, we are generally aware of what’s going on in the world and what’s happening to us, though whether or not we’ll act on it is a different thing.

Book Review: Britain’s Habitats

Britain’s Habitats: A Field Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Great Britain and Ireland – Fully Revised and Updated Second Edition
by Sophie Lake, Durwyn Liley, Robert Still, and Andy Swash
Princeton University Press

There’s something distinctly intriguing about a country that has agriculture covering 69% of its land surface but loves its habitats and wildlife as much as Britain. It’s hard to find a nation that loves its habitats more than the Brits, who have described it in lavish detail and from myriad perspectives for centuries. From Daniel Defoe’s classic A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain published in 1724 and even before that, Britain has had no shortage of books describing its beauty.

But things have also changed. Gone are the days when most people would look for impressions and intricate journal stories. What most of us want now is quick and accessible information. Somehow, Britain’s Habitats manages to do a bit of both.

Personally, I quite enjoy it when books are true to their title. Britain’s Habitats does just that — it describes the country’s habitats, virtually all of them. There’s nothing groundbreaking about that, but where it truly shines is presentation.

It starts with a wholesome introduction to the great diversity and variety of ecosystems, including details about the country’s geology, climate, and conservation measures. It’s inspiring to see just how much conservation is emphasized in the book, and this manages to create something that all books on nature should: it creates an emotional connection to the reader. I found myself interested in things I already knew, or things that would have seemed obscure and dull just moments ago. I wanted to know what flowers grow on upland wet heaths, or what makes coastal marshes unique. Although the book is filled with facts and information, it also speaks to the human, not just the brain — and that’s something that’s too often overlooked.

The essence of the book, however, are the brief descriptions of habitats. Every habitat is presented on a few pages, starting with a general description (lavishly decorated with photos), a map of where the habitat can be found, information about rare species, and other practical information (like how to recognize the habitat or when to visit it).

Disclaimer: I’m a sucker for both nature photos and maps. Britain’s Habitats hits hard on both ends. Curiously, the book doesn’t really opt for an eye-catching approach — there are lots of photos of bushes, shrubs, and things that wouldn’t strike the average traveler as particularly interesting. But to this reviewer, it seems that the book doesn’t strive to be pretty, it strives to be interesting, and that it accomplishes.

Overall, I’d say Britain’s Habitats shines in two regards: it makes for an excellent guide for those travelling through Britain (anywhere in the country), and it offers a deeper understanding of what nature has to offer. In these pandemic times, maybe we need a bit more of this.

Book Review: “Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events”

Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events
by Robert J. Shiller
Princeton University Press, 351 pages
BUY ON AMAZON

We tend to see economics as a cold, calculating beast, one guided by facts and raised on hard figures. But Robert Shiller, the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University and Nobel Laureate believes this isn’t the case at all — and argues the point in his book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events.

The decisions people make, especially groups of people, are rooted much more deeply in stories (particularly human-interest stories) than hard facts, Shiller believes. Economies are the aggregate product of all individual decisions by producers and consumers, and as such, economic fluctuations are “substantially driven by contagion and oversimplified in easily transmitted variants of economic narratives. These ideas color people’s loose thinking and actions”.

The stories we tell

The idea that human behavior can and does influence markets isn’t new, nor very surprising. What sets Shiller’s thinking apart from the beaten path is the depth he assigns to this influence. The stories we tell and listen to, he argues, influence our behavior, and can thus become self-fulfilling prophecies — if they reach enough people. Understanding the relationships between human narratives and economic reality is what we need to work on if we want to better predict events such as recessions or asset bubbles and how people will react to them.

“Ultimately, the mass of people whose decisions cause economic fluctuations aren’t very well-informed […] yet their decisions drive aggregate economic activity. It must be the case that attention-getting narratives drive those decisions,” the book reads.

To back up his points, Shiller uses detailed accounts of notable economic events in the past and their effects. He tracks the rise and subsequent collapse into obscurity of relevant narratives using data from Google Ngrams, a tool that tracks the frequency with which certain words pop up in written sources such as books and journals throughout time.

One example he cites are the two world wars. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in July 1914 (which would spark World War I), major stock exchanges in the US and Europe put their activity on hold — which led to widespread uncertainty, then panic. Eventually, large quantities of gold were taken out of the US and shipped to Europe as investments were pulled back. Shiller argues that this was due to narratives that took hold in Europe after the Panic of 1907, which “proved” that the US was unstable and thusly not the best place to keep your wealth during a war.

But in September 1939, right after Britain declared war on Germany, stock markets didn’t close down — in fact, the S&P index rose by 9.6% after the fact. At least part of this, Shiller argues, came down to stories of investors who didn’t pull their assets out of the US and made bank from selling supplies to European countries during the first war.

Were such decisions illogical? Not really, there definitely was some thought put into them. But that mental process was rooted in narratives, Shiller argues, in how people perceived markets and the countries and individual actors that made up said markets.

If stories do have such an outsized effect on economic fluctuations, one question that comes to mind is, How can we tell which ones matter? What makes individual stories powerful is how many people they reach — how ‘viral’ they become. Shiller draws parallels between them and diseases or pathogens, in that they ‘infect’ the collective awareness and ‘spread’ to encompass public discourse. The analogy seems particularly well suited for 2020.

There are also a few signs that a story will catch on and shape public behavior. Novelty, for starters, is very powerful, and novel narratives tend to have a leg up when competing for our attention. But, at the same time, there are a few ‘timeless classics’ that seem to come back again and again, just taking on different shapes to suit each era. Narratives involving either fear or enthusiasm for new technologies are cyclical, as well as moral ones including the need to live a thrifty life (Shiller believes this one, in particular, helped prolong the Great Depression). Narratives involving strong emotions such as fear and anger against certain groups perceived to be selfish or out of touch also seem to follow the same pattern.

These are just a few tidbits of the ideas Shiller attacks in Narrative Economics — and I won’t spoil the rest. The book itself is quite engrossing and pleasantly written; the ideas laid down here are a bit dense sometimes, so these factors definitely help in keeping you going.

One criticism I do have of the book is that Shiller doesn’t always provide sufficient proof, for my tastes, to back up his claims. That’s not to say they’re not worth reflecting on — they definitely are. But Narrative Economics comes off more like a collection of assertions rather than verifiable truth. The simple fact is that after reading through it, I can’t say whether Shiller’s ideas are right or wrong. The only thing I can say for sure is that they’re fascinating and definitely deserving of academic attention. He himself calls for economists to look to other disciplines, including epidemiology and qualitative social research, to better understand how stories drive economic reality — so the book may yet act as a sort of roadmap for further research.

Fittingly, perhaps, until that work is done Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events will have to remain just that — a narrative that may go viral and drive major economic events.

Book review: “Millions, Billions, Zillions”

Whether in the media or day-to-day conversations, we often hear about millions or billions of ‘stuff’. That stuff may relate to money, population, or the barrels of oil in the national reserve. But the reality is that humans aren’t meant to intuitively grasp very large numbers — and this can set you up for confusion, at minimum, or make you a prime target for manipulation and trickery, at the worst.

Millions, Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers
By Brian W. Kernighan
Princeton University Press, 176 pages | Buy on Amazon

In his latest book, “Millions, Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers” (where ‘zillions’ represents just a generic word that describes very large numbers of no particular quantity) Brian Kernighan challenges us to stop assimilating numbers at face value and instead actually think about them.

Kernighan, a professor of computer science at Princeton University, uses the phrase “number numbness” to describe the feelings many of us have when we’re confronted with too many numbers to assess to the point we just don’t care if they ‘make sense’.

Here’s an excerpt from an article posted on an environmental website that Kernighan uses as an example in his book:

“Fifty billion plastic water bottles are discarded annually by Americans; 20 billion barrels of oil are used to make this plastic and 25 million tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.”

Do you notice something fishy with these numbers? What’s more, were to you read this article in full, would you have given these numbers more consideration or would you just have gleaned pass them without a second thought?

Throughout his book, the author urges readers to always use common sense and take advantage of the power of quick estimates in order to spot errors or downright falsehoods in numbers.

In this particular example, let’s start with the first figure. Judging from your own life experience, you could say that you typically purchase a bottle of water somewhere between every day to one per week. One per week means roughly 50 per year per person (Kernighan always advises to round off numbers because the errors tend to cancel each other out) or 15 billion per year if you multiply it by the population of the United States (it’s always handy to know ballpark figures for common stats, the author advises). One per day is about 100 billion per year. So, 50 billion sounds reasonable.

But what about 20 billion barrels of oil? Well, that means it takes two-fifths of a barrel to make one plastic bottle — that’s 17 gallons of oil. Obviously that doesn’t make sense for a person that has minimal life experience, such as how much mileage you get with a car for a gallon of gas. Do Americans use an order of magnitude more oil for plastic bottles than they do for driving around? You be the judge.

Throughout his book, the author offers readers the mental tools and techniques that anyone can use to spot errors, doctored figures, and misleading statistics. Some chapters focus on common problems people encounter when converting units of measurement, while others expose the various ways biases creep into statistics and how to best spot them.

All in all, this is a must-read for anyone looking to cure their “number numbness”.

Book review: The Infinite Desire for Growth

How did we get from subsistence farming to living long, prosperous, and entertaining lives — but wanting more? Is our current economic paradigm of an always-increasing GDP a viable option for the future, given issues such as climate change, social unrest, growing inequality? Why do we want it so much in the first place, and can we afford to keep yearning for it?

The Infinite Desire for Growth tackles these very questions in a light, accessible way, while still managing to provide surprising breadth on the topic.

“The Infinite Desire for Growth”
By Daniel Cohen
Princeton University Press, 165 pages | Buy on Amazon

Economic growth always has a spot in our headlines these days — be it to celebrate good news, or report on a bad year. It’s not hard to see why: economic growth, more than any other metric, is used by officials to showcase their achievements to the public. It is, in effect, the chief indicator that we check to see if everything is alright in our countries.

Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really add up. More wealth is nice, sure, but wouldn’t happiness levels be a better indicator of how well our lives are going? Wouldn’t net worth be a better indicator of how rich we are?

Why are we looking to the growth of the economy when life expectancy, access to goods and services, and the amount of useful free time we have are much more impactful on our lives? Especially when you consider that economic growth doesn’t mean everyone gets to enjoy more wealth, due to income inequality. This growth is also responsible for more and more environmental damage — we are knowingly hurting the planet and all life on it in our pursuit. So what gives?

Daniel Cohen, a French economist, chips away at this question in his very-aptly named The Infinite Desire For Growth. And you might be surprised to hear that, in his eyes, what lies at the root of this tendency isn’t want of riches or greed — it’s hope, and a search of meaning.

Economic growth, Cohen argues, has taken the place of religion. We may not pray to the Big Dollar in the Sky, but the hope of a good afterlife in Heaven as reward for a good life has been replaced by the hope of a good life on Earth, as reward for working hard.

Growth offers the promise of a better life to all of us. Despite rarely delivering on it (due mostly to a growing inequality gap), the promise in itself is enough to keep us happy. This transition is surprisingly new, made possible mostly by secularization and industrialization.

The Infinite Desire for Growth is a very unusual book about economics, in my eyes, because I actually enjoyed reading it. Cohen doesn’t start his analysis from those tropes economists so easily fall into — such as the idea that people are always rational actors when it comes to money. His book doesn’t look for the best way to maximize wealth, offers no tips and tricks on how to increase your company’s bottom line. It looks at how culture, society, politics, science, and geography influenced the birth and development of economies.

But most fascinating to me is that he describes these through the lens of individual desires, how they compound to create supply and demand, and dictate how they’re handled.

He examines how we’ve come to virtually worship the idea of economic growth, to take for granted that there will always be more wealth to share, that we will be enjoying a better quality of life than our parents if we’re willing to work for it. And then, of course, Cohen asks what this means for today, when economic growth is stuttering, sometimes absent, and humanity is damaging the very planet that keeps it alive.

It takes a very wide look at economies and the people who create them. The cost of this is that Cohen doesn’t always go into deep detail about the concepts he discusses, but he does supply us with ample references to support his claims.

The Infinite Desire for Growth asks how we’ll contend with a simple fact: working hard no longer guarantees social inclusion or income. Automation is increasingly encroaching in the workforce, lowering the price of work (wages), and making the wealthy wealthier. Ecological degradation is threatening all of us, but the poorest will suffer the most.

Cohen ends his book by arguing that today’s selfish economic model isn’t sustainable in the future. There simply isn’t enough Earth for all of us to always be wealthier than we were yesterday. Our obsession with economic growth, he argues, has run its course. In the 21st century, humanity will have to wean itself off material gain, and rethink what “progress” actually means.

How charts lie — and how to get better at reading them

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with all sorts of charts. Charts of total cases, new cases, jobs, economic forecasts, linear and logarithmic data, comparisons — there’s a million ways to look at pandemic data, and not all of it is straightforward.

Most of us think are we pretty good at reading charts, but in reality, most of us are really not. Charts can lie and deceive in a number of ways, either by intention or just by sloppiness. A figure can indeed express complex ideas quickly, but a chart can just as easily mislead or convey the wrong idea. Just like a hammer can be used to build houses, it can also be used to tear down structures.

In his new book How Charts Lie, data viz expert Alberto Cairo takes us on an enlightening journey through the intriguing world of charts, showing not only how charts can deceive us, but how some use this against us.

How Charts Lie – Getting Smarter about Visual Information
by Alberto Cairo
W. W. Norton & Company, 352 pages
Buy it on Amazon

Charts are important, there’s no two ways about it. You may think they’re boring, you may find them interesting, but they really matter.

Alberto Cairo’s new book is definitely not boring. As I started the book, I was mentally prepared for a dry presentation of chart-making techniques, riddled with technicalities and good practice tips.

Boy, was I wrong.

Alberto Cairo is a journalist and professor, and judging by How Charts Lie, he’s a storyteller at heart. I read half of the book in one sitting without even realizing it, my curiosity stirred by both the stories and the graphics. The text flows smoothly and is accompanied by excellent data visualization examples. The book also manages to be succinct and rich at the same time, offering enough examples to paint a clear picture without overwhelming.

Here’s an example from How Charts Lie (Cairo has been kind enough to make most of the charts in the book freely available).

Credits: Alberto Cairo.

This chart has actually been used in a political debate, aiming to depict that as cancer-screening services are going down, abortions are going up. At first glance, it seems very convincing — but the devil is in the details.

If you look carefully at the figures, one drops from roughly 2 million to 0.9 million, while the other increases from 0.289 million to 0.328. So it’s not exactly an equivalent relationship, even though it’s presented as such. Not even mentioning that this is a pure correlation with no presented causality, the chart is already misleading. Here’s what a more accurate version of the chart would look like:

Credits: Alberto Cairo.

Doesn’t exactly tell the same story, does it? Either by design or by accident, some charts convey a message that is misleading, and if we’re not chart-literate, it’s very easy to be deceived by this.

Here’s another striking example. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a United States immigration policy launched by President Obama in 2012 to protect people who were brought in the US illegally as children. The policy was cancelled by President Trump, and one of the main arguments against it is that DACA recipients are likely to become criminals. Here’s a chart that conveys this:

Credits: Alberto Cairo.

Again, at first glance, it’s convincing. Here are these young aliens committing crimes in the US, so why shouldn’t they be deported?

Well, if you look at the big picture, you’ll see why: because this crime rate is about 20 times lower than the average American.

Credits: Alberto Cairo.

Sometimes, these charts aim specifically to mislead. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to use misleading charts in political debates, especially as we’ve seen in recent years. But more often than not, Cairo argues, it’s not malevolence, but sloppiness that produces imperfect charts.

It’s hard to believe that, over the hundreds of charts we’ve published at ZME Science, all of them are flawless. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m certain that that’s not nearly the case. We, like most or all journalists, work with tight time constraints and limited resources, and producing charts is challenging and time-consuming. If we’ve ever come up short, we have only our own sloppiness to blame.

This is why books like How Charts Lie are so important: we’re used to taking a single glance at a chart and producing an interpretation almost instantly, but a chart only shows what it shows — not what we project onto it.

Here’s an example:

Credits: Alberto Cairo.

There’s a striking correlation between people drowining in a pool and Nicholas Cage movies. Seemingly, one causes the other, but by all standards of logic, that’s not the case. It’s an obvious example, but what if it had been something less obvious? Sometimes, charts suggest a connection when really, there’s no connection there — and the opposite can also be true in some cases.

I thought How Charts Lie was a book for journalists and data scientists, but I was wrong. It’s a book for anyone who wants to be literate in the language of charts, and that’s something all of us should aim for. It’s a book I wish more people would read.

The Bearded Lady Project: Why the Face of Science Needs to Change

Picture a paleontologist. Walking through the fields, looking for traces of ancient life, analyzing the samples in a lab, maybe even teaching a class. What does this paleontologist look like? Does he have a distinguished, grey-white beard? Or is he tall and rugged, nimble as he looks for fossils?

Imagination results may vary, but the paleontologist is probably not a woman, is it?

For some reason, paleontology and beards seem to go hand in hand, and like many scientific pursuits, this is still regarded by many as a male-specific field — this needs to change.

In an intriguing project (also published in a book), artists and scientists hope to change the face of science. They call it the Bearded Lady Project, because, understandably, it features a photo gallery of “bearded ladies” — women working in the natural sciences equipped with a beard prop.

Get The Bearded Lady Project book on Amazon.

In 2014 Dr. Ellen Currano and Lexi Jamieson Marsh met for dinner. They were both feeling unhappy with how they were treated in male-dominated fields — Currano in paleontology, Marsh in filmmaking. Jokingly, they said that maybe if they put a beard on, men would take them more seriously.

It was a joke, but it caught on. Obviously, a good scientist doesn’t need a beard — yet somehow, the two go hand in hand. The beard itself is a symbol: it’s something that, barring exceptions, only men (and traditionally, distinguished men) can achieve. It is a symbol of masculinity, yet it also became associated with endeavors that are not masculine — often at the expense of women in the field.

Anecdotally, there’s no shortage of stories of women struggling to succeed in a male-dominated field, and the field of science is no exception. The figures also back the anecdotes up. In the US, just 16% of geoscience faculty are women, and the median salary is 12% lower for women. You’d probably struggle to find a woman in science that hasn’t been confronted with sexism in one form or another, the problems ranging from minor but persistent nuisance to career-ending. For many women, succeeding in science — especially in areas that involve rugged fieldwork, such as paleontology — is a constant uphill battle.

Yet some do succeed. The Bearded Lady Project aims to tell their story in a unique and striking way. The book features dozens of classic, black-and-white old-school photos. The classic “scientist in the field” take, but with a twist: beards. The intent was to shed light on how ridiculous it is that women (or everyone, really) should fit into a stereotype to be accepted — challenging the face of science, as the authors say.

The participants in The Bearded Lady Project aren’t attempting to pass off as men at all. There is no make-up or prop or anything to make them seem more masculine. The beard is strapped on to a clearly feminine face. Yet the visual impact of this simple prop is striking. I knew I was reading a book that would have “bearded ladies”. I was completely aware of what was coming — and yet, for a split second, whenever I was looking at a new photo, my brain was tricked into thinking it’s a man. It’s an interesting trick that hints at how deep our subconscious biases are, and how gender bias sometimes creeps in even when we’re not aware of it. It’s also a good way to dismantle biases. The photos force you to look, take a moment, and then look again.

The book tells useful and insightful stories. You get to learn a bit about paleontology, a bit of how old environments are reconstructed, and even a bit about filmmaking. The whole project started out supported by friends and funded by family, writes Marsh, and it shows: the conversation is now expanding and growing, yet The Bearded Lady Project still feels like a heartfelt endeavor, and it succeeds at making the reader think and ponder. It challenges persistent gender biases and puts the spotlight on underrepresented geoscientists — both in the field and in the lab.

As an Earth scientist and a science communicator, I was thrilled by this project, and I loved the book. The vintage-like photography is stunning, the stories are charming, and the message is more important than ever. But while The Bearded Lady Project focuses on palaeontology, its scope reaches far beyond Earth science, and beyond science in general. It’s an excellent blend of art and science, with lessons that can be applied universally in our society.

The quality of the photos alone are worth it. The stories are equally compelling, and the overall message is not only important, it’s necessary. The Bearded Lady Project has my support.

Mathematics and our quest for beauty, truth, and human flourishing

Take a second and think about mathematics — what are the first words that come to mind? For many people, it’s probably “complicated”, “difficult”, or “boring”. But if you were to ask people like Francis Su, you’d probably hear replies that involve “beauty”, “truth”, and “creativity”.

Granted, Su is one of the better mathematicians out there, having served as President of the Mathematical Association of America for 2 years, until 2017. But you don’t need to be a leading mathematician to enjoy it.

In his book, Mathematics for Human Flourishing, Francis Su argues (and I’d dare say, proves) that anyone can enjoy mathematics. It’s not about solving equations or looking at triangles, it’s about becoming a better person — and doing it in a way that’s actually enjoyable.

Get it on Amazon.

The story of Christopher, Simone, and you

Mathematicians don’t often receive standing ovations. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Francis Su delivered his farewell address at the Joint Mathematics Meetings of the Mathematical Association of America.

As you may imagine, it wasn’t your average talk. It started with an emotional story of one Christopher Jackson. Here’s how Su described Christopher at the time:

“Christopher is an inmate in a high-security federal prison not far from Atlanta. He’s been in trouble with the law since he was 14. He didn’t finish high school, had an addiction to hard drugs, and at age 21, his involvement in a string of armed robberies landed him in prison with a 32-year sentence.”

This alone, Su argued, is enough for you to make a mental image of Christopher, and not a very flattering one. Yet, after 7 years in prison, Christopher reached out to Su with a touching letter that read:

“I’ve always had a proclivity for mathematics, but being in a very early stage of youth and also living in some adverse circumstances, I never came to understand the true meaning and benefit of pursuing an education… over the last 3 years I have purchased and studied a multitude of books to give me a profound and concrete understanding of Algebra I, Algebra II, College Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus I and Calculus II.” 

Doesn’t exactly fit your previous mental image, does it? Christopher and Su developed a long correspondence, with the former asking the latter for a direction for his mathematical passion. Christopher didn’t expect a reply to his initial letter. He had no connection to Su, no special way of delivering the letter, and he only reached out because he saw Su’s name in a book; and yet, Su replied.

Dilligently working by himself, Christopher slowly became a better mathematician, and through it, a better man.

What is it that drew Christopher to find serenity, progress, and meaning in mathematics? You could reasonably argue that Chris is in prison, his perspectives are limited, there isn’t that much he can focus his attention on.

Take then the case of Simone Weil — Simone Weil is a well-known French philosopher, also the sister of Andre Weil, a mathematician. Simone’s achievements were arguably just as, if not more impactful than those of her brother, and yet she constantly felt in his shadow, denied access into a club that she desperately wanted to get into. Describing her feelings on the matter, she wrote:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties… the exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.”

Simone loved mathematics, we know this from some of her writings, and she was also brilliant. Granted, her brother was a mathematical genius, but is this is a reason for her not to enjoy mathematics?

I’d wager that most (if not all) people on Earth have, at some point, that mathematics is best left for someone smarter than them, why is this? Why is maths regarded as an exclusive club where only the chosen few are allowed to go in? Most people like to play football or basketball, even though they’re not Ronaldo or Lebron, folks try their hand at writing or painting, there’s no apparent reason why mathematics should be any different.

In fact, if you look at social media, you’ll find a million of those “how much is one shoe plus one hat” quizzes. Put them in an equation form, and everyone’s immediately turned off.

It’s not that people have an innate disdain for math, on the contrary — we’re a curious species, and mathematics is a very curious thing. Rather, the way we’re taught to think about mathematics, that’s what ends up pushing us away from it and makes us think like it’s just unapproachable.

You instinctively want to solve this, don’t you?

In Mathematics for Human Flourishing, Francis Su takes a different journey. Su doesn’t talk about mathematics in terms of numbers and charts, he talks about basic human desires, such as play, beauty, truth, justice, and love.

The book also touches on some very practical concerns, such as racial and cultural injustices. Su grew up in Texas, born to Chinese parents, in a predominantly White and Latino community. He had no Asian role models and tried to act white, despite not really fitting in — but he was also regarded as not Chinese enough by Asian communities. In his book, Su makes the pass from math to this kind of topic with remarkable ease. At times, it doesn’t even feel like reading, it almost feels like hearing someone recount stories and ask questions about the future. It’s insightful, challenging, and heartwarming.

At times, the stories are sprinkled with small puzzles that you can work on to hone your imagination and creativity, and they serve their purpose. Ultimately though, the book all about seeing mathematics for what it really is, or rather could be: not a weapon to torture students with, not a mere tool to help with other things, but a process for human flourishing. You don’t need to be good at math to read it. You can be extremely good at math and still take a lot from it. That’s the beauty of it.

After five years of correspondence, Fransic Su got the chance to meet Christopher. They took a photo in front of a mural painted on a prison wall, the only place where taking a photo was allowed. The earliest that Christopher could leave prison is in 2033. Sentences for offenses like the ones he was convicted were reduced, but not retroactively. If it had, Chris would be free now.

Yet he does not despair. He repents for his earlier mistakes and strives to make the best of his time, in large part through mathematics. A small intervention at the right could have put his whole life on a completely different course.

The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success — a Must-Read for the Current Times

Many people are concerned about our climate and would like to do something. But in between a complex economy, mammoth corporations, and politicians that rarely listen, it’s easy to feel trapped and powerless. It seems that we, the citizens, hold the least power in this equation.

But that’s not exactly true. Not only can we make a difference, but we must make a difference. When companies, politicians, and other people don’t take the necessary measures against climate change, it’s up to us to push them in the right direction.

But first, we need to know what the right direction is.

The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths that Hinder Progress
by Mark Jaccard
Cambridge University Press

GET IT ON AMAZON

The problem with climate change is that it’s incredibly complex. As if that wasn’t enough, addressing climate change also needs to incorporate the human factor — the economy we’ve developed, our social values, and our political system. Understanding that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is simple enough, but understanding how to do that (and more importantly, how to do it in a realistic way) is a whole different ball game.

If anyone understands this ball game, it’s Mark Jaccard. Jaccard is a professor of sustainable energy in the School of Resource and Environmental Management (REM) at Simon Fraser University, working on developing models that assess sustainability policies. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers, but his expertise spreads far outside the academic environment. He has worked with energy agencies, the IPCC, national and international advisory councils, and is one of Canada’s most prominent energy policy advisors.

Jaccard has seen governments come and go. He has seen ambitious policies succeed, but also fall down flat in the muddied arena of modern politics. But as an economist, he views it all through the lens of economy — and herein lies his unique quality as a writer.

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, but to me, he seems like a genuinely nice person. At the very least, he seems to truly care about fighting climate change — enough to engage in civil disobedience in his 50s, as he details in one chapter. He’s also a good writer; doesn’t get distracted, is coherent, and has a pleasant style. But as I read through The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, it struck me that something else really sets the book apart: the author’s understanding of the interplay between climate change, economy, politics, and people.

It’s easy to feel powerless against climate change, but we can do something, and we can have an impact. However, there are also many myths about what can be done (and what should be done) to address this.

For instance, using more efficient light bulbs and turning off the light when we’re not in the room is a good thing. Giving up meat and using electric cars or bikes can make an even bigger difference. But at the end of the day, Jaccard emphasizes, we won’t get anywhere until we decarbonize our energy and our transportation system. The beauty of this is that we can do this, now — we don’t need a magical technological novelty, we can do it today, with the means we already have available.

The bad thing is that it’s a mammoth task.

Jaccard’s own research showed that energy efficiency alone won’t save us. This is still one of the most common myths when it comes to climate transition, and it needs to go away. We need transformative change and decarbonization.

Another myth is that cheaper renewable energy will be sufficient for the transition. That’s not only untrue, but it’s also dangerous. It’s untrue because simply having cheaper renewable energy doesn’t necessarily mean renewables will completely replace fossil fuel. It’s much more likely that we will simply use more energy altogether — both fossil and renewable — which is a certain recipe for a climate disaster. The idea that as something becomes more efficient and cheaper we use more of it is not new: it’s called Jevons Paradox, and we’ve observed it in practice as early as the Industrial Revolution. Simply relying on cheap renewables is also dangerous because it demotivates policy action. “If renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels anyway,” a policymaker might argue, “why bother implementing new policy at all?”.

These are the sort of myths and issues addressed in the book. I won’t lie, it can feel overwhelming at points. The sheer magnitude of the task can make it seem like an uphill battle. But if ever there was an uphill battle worth fighting — this is it.

The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success is an important weapon in this battle. You can use it to arm yourself in the most important way: gaining valuable information. By understanding what works and does not work, we, the citizens, can turn the tide and start producing the transformative change that’s necessary to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in climate change, or to anyone who’s genuinely curious and wants to look deeper into the important, complex, and often murky problem of addressing climate change.

The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success goes deeper than most books on climate change. It is an honest look into the eye of the storm. I loved reading it.

The Cambridge University Press has also released a free PDF of the book which you can read here.

Food or War? A look at feast and famine in our quest for peace and sustainability

Food or War
By Julian Cribb
Cambridge University Press, 350 pages | Buy on Amazon

The world is 9 meals away from anarchy, American journalist Alfred Henry Lewis noted in 1906, an idea which has been reiterated by numerous scientists and writers since then.

That still stands true today, though we might not think it. In a thought-provoking new book, science writer Julian Cribb discusses how important food is for mankind, and how the availability we often take for granted is much more vulnerable (and much more vulnerable) than we think.

Julian Cribb is what you might call an extinctologist. As a science author, he has focussed on some of mankind’s biggest challenges: climate change, pollution, and food security.

We don’t think about it too much because we take it for granted nowadays, but food availability has been a constant issue over mankind’s evolution — even today, billions of people live in food insecurity. Meanwhile, our supermarkets are brimming with choices but we’re overexploiting resources at an unprecedented pace — and we can’t keep this up for much longer. Our eating habits are not sustainable, and the check might be larger than we can afford to pay.

Famine in the past

Communist regimes and lack of food go hand in hand. It’s hard to imagine today, but people used to line up for hours at food shops, trying to get their “allocated ratios” of meat or milk — without any guarantee that there is enough.

Communist regimes also brought in widespread hunger, resulting in the starvation of millions. In Soviet USSR, the traditional kulak peasants were wiped off by Lenin’s regime leaving the country’s agriculture in the hands of an incompetent and unprepared (but servile) part of the population. Stalin’s regime only made things worse, ironically completing the destruction of the food supply that he promised to rebuild. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, Pol Pot’s bloodthirsty regime managed to completely destroy the seed of native rice — fortunately, the Rice Research Institute in the Philippines had stored some varieties.

But nowhere has famine struck with such severity as China. The fact that there’s a Wikipedia page called ‘List of famines in China‘ is telling, and in the 20th century alone, famines killed in the tens of millions.

Cribb does an excellent jobs at explaining the causes associated with these famines, and how they are often tied with bad governance and recklessness. It’s not just agricultural know-how and seeds — the entire infrastructure was destroyed by reckless regimes — and, as Cribb warns, we’re not out of the woods yet. If anything, modern famines could be more devastating than ever.

Modern hunger

Our modern society relies upon complex, modern supply chains for food — but this also makes them more vulnerable. How would we cope if they were to suddenly collapse?

To many people in the western world, the idea of a conflict based on food seems ludicrous — but food and war are often intertwined. Even in 1990s Europe, when Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo was suddenly besieged, the food disappeared almost instantly.

It doesn’t take a catastrophic event to lead to famine. Even without war or any unforeseen disaster hitting our food production systems, the rate at which we are using resources is unsustainable, Cribb emphasizes — backed by a mountain of science.

We’re doing a pretty lousy job when it comes to managing our resources sustainably.

Even something we almost never think about (soil) is threatened by our unsustainable consumption. For every meal we consume in the developed world, between 5 and 10 kilograms of soil are lost, in addition to 800 liters of freshwater — and that applies to every person and every meal. This, Cribb writes, makes the human jawbone one of the most destructive forces on the face of the Earth.

Soil erosion is a naturally occurring process that affects all landforms, but current agricultural practices mean soil is eroded at a faster rate than new soil is produced. A rough calculation, we have around 60 years of topsoil left before we start coming across major problems, Cribb writes.

Water shortage is also an issue. Water scarcity is even a bigger trigger for war than food scarcity, and most of not all groundwater aquifers (which are the largest reserve of freshwater on our planet) are being used unsustainably — which means that they could run out. Farmers are increasing their water usage more and more, which they can’t truly be faulted for, but without careful water conservation policies, many parts of the world could face major water shortage within decades or even years. We are already seeing these effects in major cities in India and Brazil, for instance.

Pollution and fertilizer usage (which is threatening pollinators and other vital parts of ecosystems) are two other major issues that must be approached and improved.

Business-as-usual emissions (including those from agriculture) are sufficient to raise temperatures by 4-5 °C by 2100 — a temperature at which many crops will fall globally.

“As we race towards a population of nine billion, business as usual for farming is no longer a viable option. We must take a more ecological approach,” argue two agrucultural experts, Nina Moeller and Michel Pimbert.

A book for a starved planet

Food or War is definitely an enticing book, and one that poses some crucial and very dark questions. The story invariably ventures into doomsday scenarios, but as any writing of this type should, it also ends with some proposals for solutions.

However, some of these solutions are even more depressing than the rest of the book.

It’s not that the solutions aren’t good, on the contrary. Cribb offers a very pragmatic and very cynical analysis — one that is almost certainly correct. But the fact that we don’t know if it’s feasible is outright depressing.

Cutting down global military expenditure by 20% and generating a whopping $340bn annually sounds like a great idea. Using that money for eco-agriculture, environmental projects, education, and novel farming techniques (particularly in the urban areas) also sounds great. But is this realistic? Hard to believe. Will politicians allocate this money from other sources? That’s also questionable.

In many ways, the global food problem — even without the ‘war’ component — seems impossible to solve under the current social and political context.

We know it is problematic, we know what must be done, but action is slow or non-existent. We are starving the planet for resources and as a result, we might eventually starve ourselves.

Transitioning to a sustainable model will be costly no matter how we look at it. Like many works before, Food or War concludes that we need to make sustainable changes or we pay the price.

I’d recommend the book to anyone, regardless of whether or not they have an interest in agriculture, history, or sustainability. It’s a book about all of us, written in a time when we are increasingly decoupled from our food sources and the environmental cost of our meals.

This is not a book that’s easy to read — neither intellectually or morally. It is complex, and at points, it is very dark. But it is a book that’s important to read, perhaps now more than ever.

How to save the world — a practical guide

There are more humans on Earth than at any other point in history, and on average, humans are living the best life they’ve ever had. With access to unprecedented global food supplies, unrivaled comfort, and the opportunity to travel all around the world, people have never had this type of luxury. But after every party, there’s a bill.

It’s not just because everyone can afford this type of lifestyle, as 3 billion people are struggling in extreme poverty, barely capable of meeting end’s meet. This particular bill is environmental. We are adding an unprecedented environmental burden, whether it’s through our climate-threatening greenhouse gas emissions, our habitat destruction, or our over-usage of resources. For the first time in history, we have to willfully limit our expansion and figure out ways to reduce our impact instead of increasing. Failing to do so will cause a permanent shift to planetary cycles and irremediable environmental damage — at best. At worst, it could bring about our very own species’ destruction.

In his book “There’s no Planet B“, researcher Mike Berners-Lee creates a practical guide for how each and every one of us can play our part in saving the world, ensuring that mankind can live on our planet without destroying it. It starts from the very small scale and builds up to the grand scheme of things, showing how changes, both big and small, are necessary to achieve this goal. Let’s have a look.

Maybe it’s because I was hungry when I first started the book, but I love the fact that it starts off with food. In hindsight, it’s a clever trick: it’s something we can all relate to, but it’s also something many people don’t think about when it comes to reducing environmental impact. Our dietary preferences and habits take a huge toll, and we absolutely need to consider that when it comes to sustainability. It also sets the tone for the rest of the book: here’s something we all do every day, and here’s what a big impact it is having — let’s try and improve it, but let’s be smart about it! The average person consumes around 2,300 calories a day, but as the world grows, in total almost 6,000 calories per day. So why do so many still go hungry?

There is no one single answer to that question. A combination of food that goes unpicked (for various reasons), inefficiencies in the supply chain, and biofuels are all, in part, responsible. The most important reason, however, is meat.

Plants convert about 10% of the solar energy they receive into nutrients, and plant-eaters also convert around 10% of the energy into edible nutrients. In other words, 90% of all the food ingested by a cow or a sheep are wasted. Of course, some of that is useless — we can’t really do anything with grass, for instance — but much of it comes from food humans could consume themselves directly. In total, a whopping 1,740 calories of the global 6,000 produced every day are given to animals. We barely get 10% of those calories in the form of meat and dairy. That’s why one of the most sustainable decisions you can make is to reduce your meat consumption — you don’t have to go full vegetarian unless you want to, just reduce it. Berners-Lee makes a compelling case for eating less meat (especially red meat), while also combating one of the most common myths regarding meat: that you *need* it. Pound per pound, soybeans have more calories and double the protein than beef.

Food can only get us so far, however. If we want to truly transition towards a sustainable society, we have to do much more, and a lot of that has to do with fossil fuels. You can beat around the bush [alalalaal], but no matter how you look at it, it boils down to a very particular point: we need to keep most of the fossil fuel currently in the ground to stay in the ground.

Renewable energy is a vital point, but if we develop renewable technologies while continuing to pump oil from the ground, we’re making things worse instead of better. This problem is well-known in economics, being observed among others, during the 19th-century coal age: the more people had access to high-quality coal, the more they used. Something similar might happen nowadays — add more energy from renewables into the mix and you just have more energy (and more emissions). This might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s something that does happen and must be accounted for if we want to truly transition to a sustainable world. It also hints at another important aspect: this is no easy feat, it’s a complex process which has no silver bullet. Just addressing climate change alone is a huge task, but doing that at the same time as conserving wildlife habitats and ensuring a continuously rising standard of living for humans is a whole different ballgame. It’s a challenge unlike any other mankind has ever faced, and will require a different way of thinking. Can that even happen?

Berners-Lee believes it can, but we all need to play our part. At points, he almost makes it look easy; when it comes to food, just eat less meat. Traveling? Use fewer flights. However, there’s a very important caveat to “There is no Planet B” — it offers an excellent guideline for what we *should* do, but do we really *want* to do that? More often than not, political will has proven to be the most important obstacle to healthy changes in society. We’re seeing that nowadays in the most pressing of ways.

It took decades after anthropogenic climate change science was essentially settled for a worldwide framework to fight climate change was established. The Paris Agreement, while a crucial step, is not overly ambitious, and only includes a “bonus” objective to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, although science has shown that it would not only prevent dramatic environmental damage, but also save money and resources in the long run. To make matters even worse, no country on Earth is on track to stick to the Paris Agreement, and the president of the US (the world’s second largest polluter and most influential country on the planet) has announced that he wants to leave the agreement. So while the world is making some progress, it’s not exactly taking strides.

That just won’t cut it.

The solutions are laid down in front of us — whether we choose to actually follow them is a completely different story. It will require a societal change of frame, a lot of work, and pushing politicians into the right direction. Voting for environmentally-conscious politicians (or encouraging existing politicians to follow an environmentally-conscious agenda) is one of the most important things you can do, argues Berners-Lee.

Essentially, this boils down to a matter of values. Values are a fundamental aspect of the transition to a sustainable world, and yet our values are not exactly aligned with what we need to do. Simply put, we don’t really seem to care enough about Planet A to make sure we don’t need a Planet B — but Berners-Lee is optimistic. Maybe just a tad too optimistic if you ask me, but that’s just what we need.

I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting down with Mike Berners-Lee but it seems like he’s someone who at some point, tried to be a cynic but just couldn’t. Whether it’s the dumpster-diving intern that brings him cake that supermarkets are throwing out, the polite yet firm critique of many of today’s environmental policies, or his desire to healthy social values, Berners-Lee seems like a pragmatic optimist — and it’s this attitude that he imbues to his book, too.

“There is no Planet B” is several things. It’s a guideline for citizens, politicians, and companies. It’s a starting framework for everyone who cares about climate change. But most of all, it’s a good book, which I warmly recommend.

In this article, there is a referral link to purchase the book. This means that if you buy the book using that link, ZME Science will receive a very small share of the book price. This does not do anything to sway our review one way or another.

Book review: ‘Music by the Numbers: From Pythagoras to Schoenberg’

Music by the Numbers: From Pythagoras to Schoenberg
By Eli Maor
Princeton Press, 176pp | Buy on Amazon

Music is often said to be deeply connected to mathematics. Indeed, many of the world’s foremost classical composers such as Bach or Stravinsky claimed that music must have some math-like logic, but not much has been said about the influence music has had on mathematics. In his latest book, Eli Maor argues that the two have equally influenced each other, despite each advancing on their distinct, separate paths.

A former professor of the history of mathematics at Loyola University Chicago, Maor charmingly writes about how music has inspired mathematicians for centuries. The famous Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras once said, “There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” It’s no surprise that Maor begins his book with Pythagoras, who was the first to establish the octave as a fundamental musical interval.

Noticing that certain ratios of string length produced pleasant combinations of sounds (consonances), whereas ratios of larger numbers produced dissonances, Pythagoras saw this as a sign that nature is governed by simple numerical ratios. For instance, by extrapolating his findings of vibrating strings, Pythagoras claimed that planets in motion also produce sounds and their ratios corresponded to tonal musical intervals in the Pythagorean scale. His idea would dominate scientific thought for thousands of years.

Perhaps the most famous example of how music has influenced science is the vibrating string problem, a 50-year-old debate that pitted Bernoulli, Euler, D’Alembert, and Lagrange — some of the greatest mathematicians of all time — against each other. Although they came close, the four just couldn’t settle the debate. However, Maor writes that their work “spearheaded the techniques needed to deal with the continuum, of which the vibrating string was but the simplest example.”

Maor goes on to weave further interesting connections between music and mathematics, ending with the simultaneous emergence of Einstein’s theory of relativity and Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone or series scale enables composers to write atonal music whose rules dictate that no note is bound to any home key whatsoever. Instead, the notes are played relative to its predecessor — this way all systems of reference are equivalent to one another, just like in Einstein’s theory.

You don’t necessarily need either mathematical or music training to enjoy Music by the Numbers, as the author does a great job at explaining musical scales or linear algebraic equations. All in all, this was a great book that anyone with an interested in music, mathematics, or both will find engaging and useful.

 

Book Review ‘Does it Fart?’

Dogs do it. Millipedes do it. Birds don’t do it, but humans definitely do it — some more than others. Of course, I’m talking about farting, one of the most natural biological processes, which is frowned upon in most cultures.

Does It Fart?: The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence
by Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti
Publisher: Quercus // 145 pp // Buy on Amazon

Does it Fart? is the best book you never knew you wanted to read — it’s the ultimate guide to animal flatulence, a compendium of gassy stories. But don’t let the whimsical approach fool you; there’s a lot of solid biological info you just don’t find in most books.

For instance, did you know that almost all mammals fart, but the sloth doesn’t?

Dani Rabaiotti, a Ph.D. zoology student at the Zoological Society of London and co-author of the book, studies how climate change impacts African wild dogs. She teamed up with Virginia Tech ecologist Nick Caruso after facing an avalanche of Twitter questions regarding the ability of different animals to fart.

“We just had a mutual interest in farts,” Caruso recalls.

Farts come in different (how shall we put this) forms and intensities, and not all animals fart the same way. In fact, the two authors first had to decide on what a fart really is. They settled on a simple definition: gas that comes out of the end opposite to the mouth. But even so, things aren’t as simple as they might seem.

For instance, what do you do with creatures that don’t have an opposite end? What do you do with creatures whose farts aren’t associated with digestion, but with other processes? Well, then you just explore the story and see what comes out of it.

Herein lies the beauty of this book: sure, the subject is whimsical, but this kind of childish curiosity is too often missing in today’s scientific world. There are many things we don’t know about animal farts, and if you start to dig around, there’s a good chance you’ll find some very puzzling biological questions.

Biophysical processes, including some which seem quite funny — like farting — are important for many creatures of the world, and there’s still so much we don’t know. Does it Fart? takes a boyish approach to it all, but it makes a very compelling case in doing so — the straightforward curiosity takes us off the beaten path, and it offers a refreshing reading experience.

I read the book in two goes. I only stopped because I really had work to do — otherwise, I would have probably devoured it in one go. It reads a bit like Pokemon cards, or simple, animal-by-animal information tidbits. The book is masterfully complemented by simple drawings and also touches on human farting which, as I suspect you already know, is frowned upon in most parts of the world.