The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A HatThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
by Oliver Sacks
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781447203834
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Pages: 256
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Picador

In this extraordinary book, Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts the stories of patients struggling to adapt to often bizarre worlds of neurological disorder. Here are people who can no longer recognize everyday objects or those they love; who are stricken with violent tics or shout involuntary obscenities, and yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents. If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales illuminate what it means to be human.


This has been on my shelf for at least 10 years, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick it up; I’m a sucker for case studies, and Sacks doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

This is a collection of previously published case studies of various neurological disorders, and reading it reinforces my sense that truly, every day is a miracle when your brain isn’t forsaking you.  I alternated between awe, horror, indignation, anger, sadness and, throughout a growing, overwhelming amount of respect for those that dedicate their lives to their patients.  Sacks impressed me as both a doctor and a human.

The book wasn’t perfect – Sacks had a tendency to meander through citations of similar cases, or other doctors’ hypothesis, and when that happened, my eyes got a bit glassy, and I skimmed, but overall it’s an incredibly readable collection.  I wish there was more follow up for so many of these people – I’m left curious and hopeful that they all found some space in the world for themselves.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet WormsHorseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms
by Richard Fortey
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780307275530
Publication Date: December 11, 2012
Pages: 332
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Vintage Books

Evolution, it seems, has not completely obliterated its tracks as more advanced organisms have evolved; the history of life on earth is far older—and odder—than many of us realize.

Scattered across the globe, these remarkable plants and animals continue to mark seminal events in geological time. From a moonlit beach in Delaware, where the hardy horseshoe crab shuffles its way to a frenzy of mass mating just as it did 450 million years ago, to the dense rainforests of New Zealand, where the elusive, unprepossessing velvet worm has burrowed deep into rotting timber since before the breakup of the ancient supercontinent, to a stretch of Australian coastline with stromatolite formations that bear witness to the Precambrian dawn, the existence of these survivors offers us a tantalizing glimpse of pivotal points in evolutionary history. These are not “living fossils” but rather a handful of tenacious creatures of days long gone.

Written in buoyant, sparkling prose, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is a marvelously captivating exploration of the world’s old-timers combining the very best of science writing with an explorer’s sense of adventure and wonder.


This ended up with 4 stars because I struggle with timelines that stretch over billions of years.  I find the science riveting, but when the text starts throwing around Ages and Periods like Cretaceous and Mesozoic and Mesoproterozoic like we’d talk about events that happened to us last week, my eyes glaze over and my comprehension rate plummets through the floor.

Still Fortey deserves better; he’s an excellent writer, one who mixes personal anecdotes with hard science very well.  He only slipped up once and made evolution sound like a sentient decision making process on the part of the specimen in question, but perhaps he was only making a point.

In this book he visits a list of life (flora, fauna, and microscopic) whose branch on the tree of life has survived the ages, evolving through catastrophic events only to wind up in the here and now, where humans will likely figure out a way to kill them off.  Except, sadly, for the cockroaches, and, happily, the sea monkeys.  He ties these fascinating species of today to their ancestors of the past and discusses where current thinking places them on the tree of life: are they closer to the trunk (truly amongst the first) or are they closer to the tips of the branches (the newcomers, or – in our case – the party crashers).

This is one of those books that, because of their built-in uniqueness in flora and fauna, the antipodean part of the world becomes the star.  There are a lot of critters featured here that are found in New Zealand and Australia.  Not taking anything away from my home country, these were my favourites.  I need to be on the lookout for the velvet worm, and I have a new appreciation for the extreme mothering practices of the Echidna.  I think seeing a lungfish might be kinda cool.

Fortey does get one thing wrong: he says no mammal is venomous.  I don’t know if this is because the book was written before the slow loris was found to have venom glands, or if that discovery just stayed under his radar.  It’s a small thing in the overall body of knowledge in the book and has no consequence in the context of the subject matter under discussion.

Not an easy reading book, but one that’s worth the time and effort.

NB: Some quick research into the venomous mammal bit, and the slow loris is the only venomous primate; of course there are a handful of other venomous mammals, including my beloved (male) platypus.  I tried to find the reference in the text again, but I can’t remember which chapter it was in, and the index yields nothing for venom, so now I’m thinking he might have been referring to primates, not mammals, and the slow loris discovery was post-publication.

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the WorldThe Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World
by Abigail Tucker
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781476738239
Publication Date: December 1, 2016
Pages: 241
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

House cats rule back alleys, deserted Antarctic islands, and our bedrooms. Clearly, they own the Internet, where a viral cat video can easily be viewed upwards of ten million times. But how did cats accomplish global domination? Unlike dogs, they offer humans no practical benefit. The truth is they are sadly incompetent rat-catchers and pose a threat to many ecosystems. Yet, we love them still.

To better understand these furry strangers in our midst, Abby Tucker travels to meet the breeders, activists, and scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to cats. She visits the labs where people sort through feline bones unearthed from the first human settlements, treks through the Floridian wilderness in search of house cats on the loose, and hangs out with Lil Bub, one of the world’s biggest feline celebrities.

Witty, intelligent, and always curious, Tucker shows how these tiny creatures have used their relationship with humans to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet. The appropriate reaction to a cuddly kitten, it seems, might not be aww but awe.


This should have been a better book; Tucker is a self professed, life long lover of cats, and I understand her need to be objective about the subject matter – I applaud it, even.  But just about all of this book felt like an apology, or an over-correction of bias.  Or both.

The Introduction professes the text to be an overview of the history of cats as domesticated animals and their intersection with culture and pop culture.  It mostly succeeds, but really, just barely.  I think her motivation underneath it all is to point out that cats are cats and cats do what cats do, but humans are, at the end of the day, at the heart of the destruction that cats get blamed for.  After all, without human interference and transportation, house cats would still be a wild animal confined to the region around Turkey.  Unfortunately, if that’s the message she intended, she was a little too subtle about it.

There were highlights; I loved that she pointed out that cats are the only domesticated animal that chooses to be domesticated and the only domesticated animal that can successfully return to the wild.  When people say cats are independent, I don’t perhaps think they realise just how independent they truly are.  I admire them for that.

Otherwise, I mostly just argued with the text as I read it, and all in all I found The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions  by Thomas McNamee to be a superior text all the way around.  I learned a lot from that book, and it left me with a lot to think about.  This one, I was just mostly happy to have finished.

DNF: The Botany of Desire

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.