The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan
Publication Date: January 1, 2001
Pages: 273
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Random House

In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant -- though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds's most basic yearnings -- and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?

Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.


Nopity nope, nope, nope.  Couldn’t do it.  Way too much meandering about and I was just bored.  Plus, I have problems with authors trying to explain evolution as though it were a sentient process, and while I agree with the premise that plants have likely evolved to appeal to humans, thus ensuring their own survival, I draw the line at the conceit, through bad use of language, that the plants made a rational choice to do so.  It makes me imagine a room full of plants, sitting around a table, plotting out the structure of their own DNA in order to better market themselves to humans.

No, no, no, no, no.

Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

VenomousVenomous
by Christie Wilcox
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780374283377
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Pages: 236
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Scientific American

In Venomous, the molecular biologist Christie Wilcox investigates venoms and the animals that use them, revealing how they work, what they do to the human body, and how they can revolutionise biochemistry and medicine today.

Wilcox takes us from the coast of Indonesia to the rainforests of Peru in search of the secrets of these mysterious animals. We encounter jellyfish that release microscopic venom-packed darts known to kill humans in just two minutes, a two-inch caterpillar with toxic bristles that trigger haemorrhaging throughout the body, and a stunning blue-ringed octopus with saliva capable of inducing total paralysis. How could an animal as simple as a jellyfish evolve such an intricate, deadly poison? And how can a snake possess enzymes that tear through tissue yet leave its own body unscathed? Wilcox meets the fearless scientists who often risk their lives studying these lethal beasts to find out, and puts her own life on the line to examine these species up close. Drawing on her own research on venom chemistry and evolution, she also shows how venom is helping us untangle the complex mechanisms of some of our most devastating diseases.


Venomous and I did not get off to a great start.  You’d think it would be a sure bet, since Chapter 1 kicks things off with the platypus, possibly my most favourite non-domesticated animal, and one she visited with – as she notes on page 1 – at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary “in Melbourne Australia”.  I’ve been to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and I have a picture of myself and the koala that peed on me to prove it (fun fact: koala pee smells sooooo bad).  The thing is, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is in Brisbane, not Melbourne.  Not a small error, either; one is at the bottom of the continent and the other at the top.  Plus, Wilcox was there, so you’d like to think she knew she was in Brisbane and not Melbourne.  Unless the koala pee stench got to her.

Anyhoo … I was understandably feeling a bit cynical after that illustrious beginning, and the first few chapters were not enough to sway me either way, but I began to find myself invested – as measured by how much I started reading out to MT (I am a trial to this poor man, I know) – by chapter 6: “All the better to eat you with”.  This is the chapter about necrotising venoms, proving that I’m really no better than a 12 year old boy sometimes.  But chapter 8 was even better: Mind Control.  OMG.

Chapter 9 is about the pharmacological miracles that have been wrought by venom research, and reading it made me want to rush out to the world and scream nobody touch anything! simply because at the rate humanity is going, we’ll exterminate the cure for cancer, et al long before we ever knew it existed.

Venomous is a popular science book and as such is filled with anecdotes that make it easier for the average arm chair science nerd to connect with the material being discussed; it also has a not insignificant amount of the harder science in the form of detailed descriptions of neural chemical pathways, etc. but I wouldn’t call it inaccessible.  In comparison, my recent read, Venom, is a far more hard-core scientific discussion and breakdown of the study of venom.  (And it had much better pictures).

In an interesting six-degrees-of-separation chain of my TBR reads, Venom cited this book, Venomous, in the text, and Wilcox has cited The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, so I guess I know what my next non-fiction book is going to be.

Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany TodayDarwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany Today
by Ken Thompson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781788160285
Publication Date: July 4, 2018
Pages: 255
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Profile Books

A rediscovery of Darwin the botanist and his theories on insectivorous and climbing plants

Most of us think of Darwin at work on The Beagle, taking inspiration for his theory of evolution from his travels in the Galapagos. But Darwin published his Origin of Species nearly thirty years after his voyages and most of his labours in that time were focused on experimenting with and observing plants at his house in Kent. He was particularly interested in carnivorous and climbing plants, and in pollination and the evolution of flowers.

Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time - and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants - particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and 'plant intelligence'.


A well written homage to Darwin’s other ground-breaking works, each chapter covers one of Darwin’s papers or books concerning plants.  As the author points out, if Origin of Species never came out of the drawer, Darwin would still be a genius game-changer just in the subject of botany.

The book is easy enough to read with a basic background in botany and/or a tolerance for the technical names for the parts of a plant.  As usual after reading a book about plants, I have a new list of plants I want in my garden – all of them carnivorous.

how to: absurd scientific advice for common real-world problems

how to: absurd scientific advice for common real-world problemshow to: absurd scientific advice for common real-world problems
by Randall Munroe
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781473680333
Publication Date: September 10, 2019
Pages: 308
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: John Murray

The world's most entertaining and useless self-help guide, from the brilliant mind behind the wildly popular webcomic xkcd and the million-selling What If? and Thing Explainer
For any task you might want to do, there's a right way, a wrong way, and a way so monumentally bad that no one would ever try it. How To is a guide to the third kind of approach. It's full of highly impractical advice for everything from landing a plane to digging a hole.


If you’ve ever read Randall Munroe’s xkcd website, or his first book, What If? you know what to expect from How To

If you haven’t, and you like physics, or imagining really weird scenarios and outrageous, possibly dangerous or lethal solutions to ordinary problems, or both, I definitely recommend checking this book out.  It’s exactly what it says on the tin: common problems that the author has unleashed his imagination (or the imagination of others) on to create the most absurd possible solutions.  We’re talking level 10 absurdity, but there’s also a lot of excellent science in these absurd solutions and solid explanations why these solutions wouldn’t work that range from “it would take more money than you’d save” (digging for treasure), to “this will likely kill you” (surviving re-entry of the ISS), to “the end of life – and the universe – as we know it” (triggering vacuum decay to power your house).

I kept thinking as I was reading this that it would make a really fun supplementary text in high school physics.  Want to increase uptake of STEM subjects?  Show kids how to figure out the end of the universe, or how much fuel it would take to send their house into space.

Einstein’s War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of WWI

Einstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War IEinstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I
by Matthew Stanley
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781524745417
Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Pages: 391
Genre: History, Science
Publisher: Dutton

Few recognize how the Great War, the industrialized slaughter that bled Europe from 1914 to 1918, shaped Einstein&;s life and work. While Einstein never held a rifle, he formulated general relativity blockaded in Berlin, literally starving. He lost fifty pounds in three months, unable to communicate with his most important colleagues. Some of those colleagues fought against rabid nationalism; others were busy inventing chemical warfare&;being a scientist trapped you in the power plays of empire. Meanwhile, Einstein struggled to craft relativity and persuade the world that it was correct. This was, after all, the first complete revision of our conception of the universe since Isaac Newton, and its victory was far from sure.

Scientists seeking to confirm Einstein&;s ideas were arrested as spies. Technical journals were banned as enemy propaganda. Colleagues died in the trenches. Einstein was separated from his most crucial ally by barbed wire and U-boats. This ally was the Quaker astronomer and Cambridge don A. S. Eddington, who would go on to convince the world of the truth of relativity and the greatness of Einstein.

In May of 1919, when Europe was still in chaos from the war, Eddington led a globe-spanning expedition to catch a fleeting solar eclipse for a rare opportunity to confirm Einstein&;s bold prediction that light has weight. It was the result of this expedition&;the proof of relativity, as many saw it&;that put Einstein on front pages around the world. Matthew Stanley&;s epic tale is a celebration of how bigotry and nationalism can be defeated and of what science can offer when they are.


As I mentioned in an earlier reading status post, I was both drawn to this book and apprehensive about reading it.  I wanted it for the bits about Einstein and relativity, but I’ve had it up to my eyeballs in the hypocrisy and vicious hate that’s the order of our days (unless I’m at the hydrotherapy pool, and then I’m all about the hate, because seriously, parents need to learn, and then teach their unruly monsters, some damn common courtesy – especially when they share the pool with frail, injured and/or elderly tax-payers.  But I digress.)

I decided to read the prologue and was immediately sucked in, and I figured I could skim the war bits if they started dragging me down.  The war bits did drag me down, but I didn’t skim, because this book was so much more than I expected it to be in a lot of unexpected ways.

This book is not only the story of how Einstein became Einstein, it’s the story about how his theory came into this world, bit by bit, painful mistake after painful fruitless searching, with duct-tape slapped on and removed, rationalisations made, and the whole thing scrapped and started over again.  I found this part enlightening because modern tellings tend to make people think the general theory of relativity just sprouted fully formed one day from Einstein’s pencil.  I also enjoyed his small attempts, with illustrations, to describe aspects of relativity, and that he included details about some of the thought experiments that Einstein used.

This book is also about A.S. Eddington, a brilliant British mathematician turned astronomer, a Quaker, and a conscientious objector during WWI.  It’s about how his faith informed every part of his life, and his refusal to divorce his religious beliefs from his work when the British government tried to demand it of him.  It’s about how his religion guided his efforts to repair the integrity of international science when it was thought to be irreconcilably broken, and how his choice for this international bridge building – proving a calculation that verified Einstein’s theory of relativity, via the 1919 solar eclipse – and how he went about doing it, was largely responsible for turning Einstein into science’s first and only genuine superstar.  It’s about one man’s efforts to quietly and modestly fight the vicious hate and anger that permeated every part of the UK at the time.

I loved this book.  I took half a star off because the author’s fast and loose, zig-zagging time lines during the war years drove me crazy.  I know it’s difficult to be linear about complex historical events that happened in tandem, but I’d be reading about events in 1918, thinking we were getting to the end of the war, and suddenly the author had me back in 1917 without the appropriate signage.  This happened a few times and left me lost on every occasion.

But putting that aside, I loved this book.  I wasn’t expecting the respect the author showed towards Eddington’s religious integrity.  I wasn’t expecting the author’s objectivity when acknowledging Einstein’s controversies, small though they might seem in the grand scheme of things.  (I’m completely icked out by the fact that he told Elsa and her daughter that it made no difference to him which one of them he married.)

I liked that Stanley addressed and discussed the question of how much Einstein’s ex-wife Mileva may have contributed to his work, and I really liked how the author included the female scientists throughout the years that touched on Einstein’s work or life.  I loved that when he did so, it was casually, in the same narrative tone and voice he used for everything else in the book, like women working in science wasn’t special, or unique.  He was honest about their chances of advancement, or of even getting paid, but he didn’t treat them like they were some rare exotic or token.

Where the author really earned my respect though, was at the end.  Up until that last chapter, I thought the book insightful, thoughtful, well-written and engaging, but the last chapter really brought home the author’s sense of balance.  I can do no better than to quote him.  Warning, this quote is long.

Everyone wants a simple explanation for why things turn out as
they do. Popper thought the expeditions were extraordinary and made
them exemplars of good science. Everitt thought the expeditions were
biased and made them exemplars of bad science. Collins and Pinch
thought the expeditions were shaped by politics and authority, and
made them exemplars of socially constructed science

Einstein’s War has been a story about how none of those are enough.
Einstein and relativity’s victory involved good science, bad science,
politics, and personal authority. Any episode in science does. None of
those mean relativity is wrong (it has been confirmed many, many
times since then) or that Eddington fudged the numbers (there were
good reasons to trust the 1919 results). Science is done by people. That
means it will be inherently complicated and often confusing. People
will make mistakes, equipment will break, poor decisions will be made
because of political or personal bias.

Note that you could replace “science” and “scientist” in this last paragraph with any profession in the world today and it would be just as apt, and just as relevant.

We do not have to be forced into extremes. The presence of human
scientists does not make science unreliable. We need to understand,
though, what science-done-by-people actually looks like and how it
works. That means leaving behind some comforting myths about the
dispassionate, purely rational, always-objective nature of science. The
deeply human, sometimes chaotic story of relativity is not an excep-
tion. It is an exemplar. Science is messy, it is also a powerful way to
learn about the real world around us.

By the end of this book I was wanting to yell “Preach it!”  Given that I’ve never uttered those two words, never-mind thought them, in the whole of my modestly repressed life, they’re probably the best summation for just how much this book resonated with me.  Overall, it as just a really excellent read.

Reading Status: Einstein’s War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I

Einstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War IEinstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I
by Matthew Stanley
isbn: 9781524745417
Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Pages: 391
Genre: History, Science
Publisher: Dutton

Few recognize how the Great War, the industrialized slaughter that bled Europe from 1914 to 1918, shaped Einstein&;s life and work. While Einstein never held a rifle, he formulated general relativity blockaded in Berlin, literally starving. He lost fifty pounds in three months, unable to communicate with his most important colleagues. Some of those colleagues fought against rabid nationalism; others were busy inventing chemical warfare&;being a scientist trapped you in the power plays of empire. Meanwhile, Einstein struggled to craft relativity and persuade the world that it was correct. This was, after all, the first complete revision of our conception of the universe since Isaac Newton, and its victory was far from sure.

Scientists seeking to confirm Einstein&;s ideas were arrested as spies. Technical journals were banned as enemy propaganda. Colleagues died in the trenches. Einstein was separated from his most crucial ally by barbed wire and U-boats. This ally was the Quaker astronomer and Cambridge don A. S. Eddington, who would go on to convince the world of the truth of relativity and the greatness of Einstein.

In May of 1919, when Europe was still in chaos from the war, Eddington led a globe-spanning expedition to catch a fleeting solar eclipse for a rare opportunity to confirm Einstein&;s bold prediction that light has weight. It was the result of this expedition&;the proof of relativity, as many saw it&;that put Einstein on front pages around the world. Matthew Stanley&;s epic tale is a celebration of how bigotry and nationalism can be defeated and of what science can offer when they are.


I picked this off the TBR shelves yesterday because Einstein!  I almost put it back because Nationalism! War! and I’m in the mood for neither.  I decided to read the prologue, and got completely sucked in.

I’m only 60 pages in, so Einstein and Eddington are still relative newbies to the science scene and WWI is only a gleam in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eye, but I’m thoroughly sucked it.  I’m really enjoying the author’s way of leading the reader through all  of Einstein’s papers, so it’s apparent that the general theory of relativity was a process that was built upon, layer by layer, instead of something that sprouted fully formed one day.  I’m also appreciating the graphs and illustrations, even if the mathematical formulas are way over my pay-grade.

I’m really hoping my zeal for the book will withstand WWI.

Venom

VenomVenom
by Eivind Undheim, Ronald Jenner
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781486308378
Publication Date: October 1, 2017
Pages: 208
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing

A fully illustrated guide to venom, its evolution in different animal groups, its effects and its treatments.
When we enter the world of venom, we enter the realm of one of the most diverse, versatile, sophisticated and deadly biological adaptations ever to have evolved on Earth.

Since it first appeared in ancient jellyfish and sea anemones, venom has proved so effective that it has since evolved independently in dozens of different animal groups. The authors reveal the many unique methods by which venomous animals deliver their cocktail of toxins and how these disrupt the physiology of the victims.

Jenner and Undheim also consider how humans have learnt to neutralise venom’s devastating effects, as well as exploit the power of venom in innovative ways to create new drugs to treat a variety of serious conditions. Fully illustrated throughout, this illuminating guide will appeal to all those with an interest in the wondrous world of venom.


This was not quite the book I was expecting, proving you can’t always judge a book by its cover and full colour photos.  I originally thought it would be a fast-ish read. I should have known better though because it’s published by CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research.

33 days and two nightmares later, (seriously – first time EVER a book has given me nightmares) and I can say I’d happily recommend that @elentarri check this book out if she can find it.  For anyone else out there that finds science, and especially natural sciences, fun and fascinating, and is happy to tackle a densely written narrative that falls closer to academic research paper than it does to popular science in writing style, you too should see if you can find this book.

Only 7 chapters and less than 200 pages long and filled with full colour illustrations, photos (warning: some of them are graphic) and charts, but don’t let this fool you: there’s a lot of hard science here.  As I was reading it, I got the impression that it’s mean to be a primer or introduction for science students and hard-core amateurs.  Chapter 1 discusses the definitive differences between a poison and a venom, luring the reader into a sense that this is definitely aimed at armchair scientists.  By the time Chapter 5 rolls around, though, the writers are saying things like:

Not all enzymes conserve their ancestral activity while evolving into molecular killers, however.  Some snake venom PLAenzymes, for example, have lot their enzymatic activity but they can still exert their toxic roles.

(Quote take at random from chapter 5 “Evolving Venoms”).  By chapter 3 I had learned a lot but the authors were making me work for it.  While I can say, how that I’m done, that I now have a good overall understanding of the concepts presented, it’s only a very thin veneer of all that this book offers.  This is a book I’d have to re-read several times, slowly, before I could say I had an immersive understanding of the text.

While chapter 5 is, I’d say, the densest chapter, the authors do wrap the book up with two lighter chapters that were akin to a nice after-dinner sorbet.  Chapter 6 discusses how venoms are used for traditional healing, cosmetics, recreational drug use (I can’t imagine ever thinking that smoking dried scorpions sounded like a viable option), rites of passage, spiritual vision quests, and modern medicines.  I found this chapter fascinating from an anthropological perspective.  Chapter 7 is a summary chapter that uses the honeybee as a microcosm example of all the concepts of venom relevant across the microcosm.

I have never been afraid of snakes and have always been one of the first to volunteer to interact with one, and while I’ve never been stupid about venomous ones, giving them a wide berth at all times, I’ve got to say reading this, especially Chapter 4 “Dissecting the power of venom”, planted a tiny seed of fear in me about ever running across them in any context.  What few anecdotes the authors offer are chilling and I’ve been wondering if, when I can walk again, I could feasibly bush walk in thigh-high thick rubber waders.  Maybe with some good insoles…

There are, of course, a lot of other animals covered in this book – as the authors point out, 25% of all phyla are venomous (mosquitoes are considered venomous).  I have a whole new respect for the male platypus during breeding season (must look up when that is), and the slow loris?, well all I can say is if it puts its arms up to hug you, run away – fast.  But the snakes are what leave the most indelible impression, making even the spiders look like the lesser evil.

All in all, a good book for those genuinely interested.

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the LawFuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law
by Mary Roach
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781324001935
Publication Date: September 1, 2021
Pages: 308
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: W.W. Norton

What’s to be done about a jaywalking moose? A bear caught breaking and entering? A murderous tree? Three hundred years ago, animals that broke the law would be assigned legal representation and put on trial. These days, as New York Times best-selling author Mary Roach discovers, the answers are best found not in jurisprudence but in science: the curious science of human-wildlife conflict, a discipline at the crossroads of human behavior and wildlife biology.

Roach tags along with animal-attack forensics investigators, human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and "danger tree" faller blasters. Intrepid as ever, she travels from leopard-terrorized hamlets in the Indian Himalaya to St. Peter’s Square in the early hours before the pope arrives for Easter Mass, when vandal gulls swoop in to destroy the elaborate floral display. She taste-tests rat bait, learns how to install a vulture effigy, and gets mugged by a macaque.

Combining little-known forensic science and conservation genetics with a motley cast of laser scarecrows, langur impersonators, and trespassing squirrels, Roach reveals as much about humanity as about nature’s lawbreakers. When it comes to "problem" wildlife, she finds, humans are more often the problem—and the solution. Fascinating, witty, and humane, Fuzz offers hope for compassionate coexistence in our ever-expanding human habitat.


 

This has not been a great week for me overall, and this arrived Tuesday afternoon (book lover’s torture #12: when you hear the delivery man leave your new books at the doorstep and you can’t get up to retrieve them), and  by Wednesday I was in desperate need of a distraction.  Mary Roach had me laughing out loud on page 1, and I can’t tell you how much I needed those laughs.

In her introduction she states that she’s starting with the felonious crimes first: those incidents, usually bear/cougar/mountain lion, where people are mortally wounded, and ends the book with the crimes more akin to nuisances; crop theft, stealing food, etc.

It probably says something about me that I found the first half much easier to read than the second half – or maybe not.  The crimes may be ‘lesser’ but the punishments meted out by people most definitely are not.  Humanity’s ability to embrace wholesale slaughter is depressing.

The author manages to end the book on a hopeful note, and while the writing isn’t always even (sometimes the humour is a tad over-done), I learned a lot and sometimes I was entertained (usually by the way the author can laugh at herself).  Her writing isn’t for everyone, but for those that enjoy bit of entertaining and informative science journalism, her books usually deliver.

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836
by A.J. Wood, Charles Darwin, Clint Twist
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9781742114446
Publication Date: March 1, 2009
Pages: 32
Genre: Middle Grade, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: The Five Mile Press

The Beagle Adventures of Charles Darwin tells the story of his momentous voyage aboard the Beagle to his own children. This purports to be Darwin's own notebook, packed with his discoveries.

Featuring a route map, a cutaway of the Beagle, notes about life on board and navigation aids, an introduction to the Galapagos Islands and details of the species Darwin discovered, this is all you need to understand his theory of evolution.

Released to celebrate the anniversary of Charles Darwin 's birth in February 2009. Includes paper novelties and detailed artwork to bring Darwin's discoveries to life. Packaged in a beautifully designed hardback with leather closing ties, Darwin's Notebook is the perfect gift for the enquiring young mind.


 

I spotted this book yesterday in a little used book shop on our way home, and I couldn’t resist its magnetic cover or the quick glimpse I got of the inside before MT whisked it off to the counter for me.  I’m a sucker for books with little bits and pieces glued to the inside: envelopes with letters, or fold out flaps of additional information.  They bring me the same delight as a well-done pop-up book.

Being rather exhausted on our return home, this felt like the perfect fit for me last night, and it was.  It’s beautifully put together and the writing was clear, concise, and well balanced for a middle schooler with language aimed at their reading level without being at all childish.  While certainly not detailed, I thought it covered the high points of the Beagle trip for Darwin; certainly enough for a middle schooler’s introduction to Darwin.  I’d have liked it to have a few more bits and bobs in it, but that’s just my inner child talking.

For what it is and what it’s trying to be, I think it excels.  It’s a gorgeous and charming book.

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and BehaviorThe Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior
by Stefano Mancuso
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: August 28, 2018
Pages: 225
Genre: Science

Do plants have intelligence? Do they have memory? Are they better problem solvers than people? The Revolutionary Genius of Plants—a fascinating, paradigm-shifting work that upends everything you thought you knew about plants—makes a compelling scientific case that these and other astonishing ideas are all true.

Plants make up eighty percent of the weight of all living things on earth, and yet it is easy to forget that these innocuous, beautiful organisms are responsible for not only the air that lets us survive, but for many of our modern comforts: our medicine, food supply, even our fossil fuels.

On the forefront of uncovering the essential truths about plants, world-renowned scientist Stefano Mancuso reveals the surprisingly sophisticated ability of plants to innovate, to remember, and to learn, offering us creative solutions to the most vexing technological and ecological problems that face us today. Despite not having brains or central nervous systems, plants perceive their surroundings with an even greater sensitivity than animals. They efficiently explore and react promptly to potentially damaging external events thanks to their cooperative, shared systems; without any central command centers, they are able to remember prior catastrophic events and to actively adapt to new ones.


I had high hopes for this one, and it started out really strong.  But it lost its momentum after the first few chapters.

This is a translation from the original Italian, so I can’t be sure there’s not some explanation there, but the writing felt oddly defensive, as if it should have been titled In Defence of the Revolutionary Genius of Plants.  It also fell in this weird middle ground of explaining what felt like super obvious basics in a very academic voice.

I admit there were some chapters I skimmed, but then things got interesting in chapters 4 and 5, although I got irritated by the failure of reasoning exhibited by the author – which is, to be fair, a very common one.  The chapter concerned the symbiotic and sometimes manipulative relationship between some plants and animals and in the writing he mused on the motivation of the plant to develop such strategies.  I hear/read this type of thing a lot and it drives me nuts; I always picture of room full of whatever – in this case acacias – sitting around pondering, with a whiteboard covered in figures in the background, plans for their future evolutionary development.  I’m not schooled in science, but I do know that’s putting the cart before the horse.

I was back to skimming towards the end as there was a lot of general lecturing on how applications from the plant world can be applied to solve the industrial world’s problems.  There’s a little tooting of his own horn too, but to be fair the Jellyfish Barge sounds incredibly cool.  The last chapter on plants in space I skipped completely as I lacked the interest and the attention span to tackle it (it was short and I’m not sorry).

A beautifully made book, with some really good information but overall it was just not written (or perhaps translated) in an engaging enough way to keep me glued to the page.