This is Improbable

This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF ResearchThis is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF Research
by Marc Abrahams
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781851689316
Publication Date: September 6, 2012
Pages: 299
Genre: Non-fiction, Reference, Science
Publisher: Oneworld

 

I had high hopes for this book, coming from the founder of the Ig Noble Prizes, but alas it wan’t quite the chatty, easy to read format I’d expected.  This is, in fact, a collection of his columns from The Guardian, slightly expanded upon and cited out the wazoo.  This makes it an excellent reference for those times when you’re specifically looking for bizarre, twisted or otherwise outlandish research, but rather less excellent if you’re looking for an enjoyable sit-down read.

Still, it’s a comprehensive (one would hope) collection of some of the most head-scratching research being done out there in the name of science, and if you’re willing to read through the dry reportage, a few amusing facts.  My two favourites were the patent issued in the USA in 1977 for the comb-over – yes, the one you’re thinking of, that oh-so-sexy and not-at-all-obvious disguise for male pattern baldness.  And an Australian patent in 2001 for a “Circular Transportation Facilitation Device”.  Which is, you guessed it, the wheel.

A more timely and relevant invention for us in these pandemic days is the US patent awarded in 2007 for a “Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks”.  A/K/A a bra, that in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks.  It was awarded an Ig Noble prize in 2009 for Public Health, but one has to wonder just how Ig Noble the invention remains?

The Truth About Animals

The Truth About AnimalsThe Truth About Animals
by Lucy Cooke
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780465094646
Publication Date: April 17, 2018
Pages: 337
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Basic Books

What a ride.  Cooke covers 13 animals that the myths that have persisted about them over the centuries, debunking and setting the record straight.  I’m going to be straight with you: there are a lot of testicles involved, both in the myths and the realities.  I’d like to say that the truth is stranger than the fiction, but really, it’s a dead heat between the two when it comes to these particular animals.  By far the funniest, to me, was the beaver; the most tragic, the panda bears, which are, from the looks of it, being loved into extinction.

The writing is very engaging and there’s a lot of cheeky humor; hard to avoid when there are so many testicles involved.  I found myself reading so much of this aloud to MT, because much of what I read fascinated me.  Some of it I was already familiar with (penguin necrophilia, most of the information about the frogs) but a lot of it was new and I’m now totally fascinated by the possibilities of hippo sweat.

A fun read if you like animals and are an armchair scientist with a sense of humor.

Reading Progress Update: I’ve read 84 of 337 pages

The Truth About AnimalsThe Truth About Animals
by Lucy Cooke
isbn: 9780465094646
Publication Date: April 17, 2018
Pages: 337
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Basic Books

I can often judge how much I’m enjoying a non-fiction book by how much of it I torture MT with by reading aloud passages. Based on that metric, this is looking to be a 5 star read so far. Each chapter is dedicated to a different misunderstood animal, and the chapter on beavers was read to MT almost in its entirety. Hyenas got a fair amount of coverage too, although it much harder to read aloud for this modestly inclined narrator. Hyenas be freaky.

The writing style is very laid back and the humour is thick on the page, but then it’s hard to keep a serious tone when your discussing the centuries long prevailing myth that beavers being pursued by hunters will gnaw off their own testicles and throw them at the hunters in a bid to escape.

Nature’s Explorers: Adventurers Who Recorded the Wonders of the Natural World

Nature’s Explorers: Adventurers Who Recorded the Wonders of the Natural WorldNature’s Explorers: Adventurers Who Recorded the Wonders of the Natural World
by Andrea Hart, Ann Datta, David Williams, Hans Walter Lack, Judith Magee, Sandra Knapp, Simon Werrett
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780565094645
Publication Date: September 1, 2019
Pages: 240
Publisher: Natural History Museum

Almost a year this book took me to read.  I just checked my start date, and if I’d known I was so close, I’d probably have put off finishing it just for the nice, round number.  Then again, probably not: the passive guilt of this book sitting on my ‘reading’ pile was wearing me down.

None of that is meant to be a condemnation of the book, so much as a result of the nature of the book itself.  Nature’s Explorers is a collection of essays written by a selection of contributors who all either work for the Museum of Natural History, or are closely associated with it.  Each essay covers one of history’s great natural explorers and their contribution to science and the arts.

All of the expected players are included: Darwin, Humboldt, Hook, Gould, Audubon, Banks, etc. but there are quite a few lesser known naturalists and explorers too.  Two women get essays, including Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine, the late-1800’s lepidopterist who inspired Deanna Raybourne’s character, Veronica Speedwell, in her latest historical mystery series.

As always in a collection of essays written by a variety of people, some are better than others.  All are detailed snapshots of the subject’s life and accomplishments, encapsulated in 3-5 pages and surrounded by gorgeous, richly coloured illustrations and reproductions of their work.

A gorgeous book worth owning, but not one to be rushed through.

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made WorldStuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World
by Mark Miodownik
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780544236042
Publication Date: November 6, 2014
Pages: 252
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I have this in hardcover, but I listened to the audiobook from the library.  So I’m not sure if my feelings about the book are because I listened to it, or if I’d have felt the same reading it.  I do know that Storm in a Teacup is a much better read about slightly similar subjects.

Stuff Matters is a relatively slim tome covering some of the marvelous ‘stuff’ we live with, and the selection is quite varied: concrete, stainless steel, chocolate, plastics (the most irritating of the chapters), glass, graphite.  There was good information about said stuff in here, but I admit it didn’t hold my attention in nearly the same way as Storm in a Teacup.

The narrator’s voice reminded me strongly of an actor, whose character I can clearly see but can’t place.  Very, very British, balding, bow tie, condescending and misanthropic in a humorous way.  This might have had something to do with my impressions of the book, too, though I’d have to read the print version to be sure.  And someday, I likely will.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

The Body: A Guide for OccupantsThe Body: A Guide for Occupants
by Bill Bryson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780857522405
Publication Date: October 3, 2019
Pages: 455
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Penguin Books

Bill Bryson sets off to explore the human body, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself. Full of extraordinary facts and astonishing stories The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a brilliant, often very funny attempt to understand the miracle of our physical and neurological make up.


Another book I own but borrowed in audio from the library.  Also another read by the author, though Bryson does almost all of his own books and I’ve always enjoyed his readings.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an overview of the human body, taking it system by system.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, but looking through my hard copy, I can see it includes photos, making me think this is yet another book destined to be re-visited as a read, rather than a listen.  No hardship, as Bryson is an excellent writer, and The Body is no exception.  He covers the basics, plus just that little bit more, offering what might perhaps be new information, or a different perspective, or a fresh historical anecdote.  He also doesn’t pull any punches about humanity’s propensity to overeat and under exercise, something that in (what is for me) these post-lockdown days had a more pronounced effect than they might otherwise have had pre-covid.

I don’t think fans of Bryson will be disappointed.

Caesar’s Last Breath (Audio)

Caesar's Last BreathCaesar's Last Breath
by Sam Kean
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780316381642
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 375
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group

A round-the-globe journey through the periodic table explains how the air people breathe reflects the world's history, tracing the origins and ingredients of the atmosphere to explain air's role in reshaping continents, steering human progress, and powering revolutions.


I listened to this back in December-February, and forgot all about posting a review; this happens frequently with my audiobooks since I borrow them from the library and they’re not physical objects, sitting around mutely mocking me for my slack ways.

I like Sam Kean’s books, and I always have.  They’re popular science books and I enjoy his way of attaching science to everyday anecdotes; for me it’s a nice reinforce how science is at the very core of life.

Caesar’s Last Breath is about the air we all breathe and which parts of the periodic table we’re breathing at any given moment.  I own the book, but it was available from the library as audio and I needed something for the car.  It’s narrated by Kean himself, which can often not be a good thing, but I think he made a fair performance of it.  But this book also uses visuals, so while I enjoyed it, I think I’d have gotten more out of it had I read my hard copy.  Something I’ll probably do soon.

If you’ve read his other books and didn’t care for them, don’t bother with this one, but if you enjoy accessible science tied to historical events or everyday living, you might enjoy this one.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Genres: Natural Science, Science
Format: Paperback

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781783783069
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 340
Genre: Science
Publisher: Granta Books

Short answer:  no, of course we’re not.  For a lot of reasons, but mostly because of thousands of years of cultural confirmation bias.

For the long answer, you can’t go wrong reading this book.  De Waal writes a very readable treatise on the subject – where we started regarding our beliefs about animal intelligence, and how we got to where we are today, using a well balanced blend of anecdotes and scientific experiments.  While his area of study is primatology, he also delves into research conducted by colleagues on birds, elephants, dogs, a few fish wales, dolphins, and the octopus.  He systematically addresses each of the arguments that have been made as to what sets humans apart, and how these arguments have been torn down by research over time.

The book didn’t get the full 5 stars because, oddly enough, I felt De Waal was being too politic about at least one question: why are researchers, scientists and laypeople so historically stubborn about insisting that humans are above, and superior to, all other animals?  To me, that answer is obvious, though I can see why scientists equate objectivity with atheism.  The truth of the matter is that the Western world has been culturally inculcated by Judeo-Christian teachings, whether scientists like it or not, on such a fundamental level, that I doubt many are aware of it.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Personally – and this is just me – I’ve always had doubts about the original translation of Gen. 1:28 – specifically the words “subdue” and “rule”; I have to wonder if the original language wasn’t closer to something akin to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’, given that Earth may be our home, but it isn’t our house, so to speak.  And while I’m going a bit off topic here, I’ll also just say that I do believe that God gave us something that separates us from the other animals: free will.  In all my readings and my meagre experiences, we’re the only animals that can choose to be evil for the sake of being evil; we’re the only animals that can choose to hurt ourselves; we’re the only animals that will push our own boundaries just for the sake of pushing them.

Anyway – back on topic – De Waal doesn’t address deeply embedded cultural bias, which struck me as odd.  But that’s really my only niggling objection.  Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found much in it that made me think hard about animal intelligence and what it means to be aware of self, others and our surroundings.  But then again, I’m his audience:  I have always believed animals are smart, aware, and cognisant and that humans have never been as special as we think we are.

Extraordinary Insects

Format: Paperback

Extraordinary InsectsExtraordinary Insects
by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780008316372
Publication Date: April 2, 2020
Pages: 294
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Mudlark

A Sunday TimesNature Book of the Year 2019

A journey into the weird, wonderful and truly astonishing lives of the small but mighty creatures we can't live without.

Insects influence our ecosystem like a ripple effect on water. They arrived when life first moved to dry land, they preceded - and survived - the dinosaurs, they outnumber the grains of sand on all the world's beaches, and they will be here long after us.

Working quietly but tirelessly, they give us food, uphold our ecosystems, can heal our wounds and even digest plastic. They could also provide us with new solutions to the antibiotics crisis, assist in disaster zones and inspire airforce engineers with their flying techniques.

But their private lives are also full of fun, intrigue and wonder. Here, we will discover life and death, drama and dreams, all on a millimetric scale. Like it or not, Earth is the planet of insects, and this is their extraordinary story.


Either something was lost in translation, or this book is a much better fit for middle grade readers.  Given the excellent english of absolutely everybody I’ve ever met from Norway (and I worked for a Norwegian company for years), I’m going with this is a great Middle grade read.

Extraordinary Insects is a brief introduction to most of the broad families of Insects, written by an enthusiastic scientist who obviously loves her work.  It’s a fun book, engagingly written, but at a level that would appeal to strong readers in the, say, 10-13 year old range.  That’s not an insult to this book in the slightest, but those who are looking for a deeper overview of the insect world and their importance on Earth (life as we know it can’t exist without insects, but nothing but the rats and cockroaches would even notice our absence), might find this book a little frustrating for its lack of depth, and its very enthusiastic tone.  It’s a good book, but I kept thinking it would be a better fit for my niece (who just turned 11).

A great book for a budding young insect enthusiast or for anyone who has avoided ‘bugs’ but would like to dip a toe into learning more about them.

Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British FarmWilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
by Isabella Tree
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781509805105
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 362
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Picador

Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.

Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life - all by itself.


This is one of those books where the content overcomes the writing.  The writing isn’t bad by any means, but it definitely lacks the spark of personality.  Either Isabella Tree lacks anything resembling charisma, or she was holding herself back.  I choose to believe the latter, because I believe anyone willing to embrace the project she and her husband embarked on has to be inherently likeable and not a little bit charismatic.

In spite of what was often bland writing, the book is a brilliant record of the amazing achievements Tree and her husband managed on what was poorly producing farmland that was losing money.  By allowing it to revert back to its natural state, with as little human interference as possible, they accomplished so much on so many fronts.  The wildlife recovery, the flood mitigation, the general health of the land itself – all of it happening at speeds that make me optimistic that humanity hasn’t completely destroyed our planet just yet.  Lest I got too optimistic though, Tree’s documentation of the uphill battle they had to fight with government agencies who nominally existed to protect the environment put me right back into my proper, cynical, place.

Wilding is a thoroughly well researched, excellently laid out recounting of one couple’s determined efforts to restore their patch of British soil to what it was meant to be, and all the excellent rewards that came with it.  The writing may be less than enthralling but the content more than makes up for any missing sparkle or wit.  If you’re interested in the natural state of things, this is definitely worth the time and effort.