Curious Science: ‘Can Writers Prevent Disease?’

This evening, I attended a talk on two of my favourite subjects, writing and science. It was held at my local council library, which happens to be located at Circular Quay, between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. I arrived early so I went for a little walk and took some photos. Here is my artistically blurred depiction of the Bridge:

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night

Customs House, which houses the library, is a rather impressive structure itself. (I didn’t take any photos of it because there was a mob of seagulls loitering in a menacing manner on the forecourt, but this is what Customs House looks like.) The foyer has a glass floor and underneath it is an amazing 1:500 scale model of the City of Sydney, updated yearly, complete with tiny yachts and ferries bobbing about the harbour and tiny street lights that are turned on each night. I also checked out the current exhibitions, including Count Us Together, a small but fascinating collection of photos, posters and newspaper articles about the 1967 Referendum.

The writers-and-science talk was organised by a confusing number of institutions (“The City of Sydney Library joins forces with Inspiring Australia to host a Vivid event as part of the Curious Science series”) but aimed to discuss new partnerships between the Charles Perkins Centre and Australian writers. I was especially interested to learn more about the Charles Perkins Centre, because I happen to work next door to it, and often spend my lunch break in an adjacent courtyard, eating my salad sandwich and wondering what they actually do in that snazzy new building. It turns out the Charles Perkins Centre houses about nine hundred University of Sydney academics who are working on the problems of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other associated disorders. The Academic Director of the Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson, explained that obesity has a range of causes and consequences. It’s not simply about people eating too much and not exercising enough, or even about will-power – it has complex causes that include poverty, education levels, agricultural practices, cultural expectations, the built environment and many other factors. Accordingly, the Centre employs staff from a wide range of academic disciplines – philosophers, medical specialists, architects, psychologists, physicists, agriculturalists and many more – who collaborate in a fluid, creative way in research and teaching. Given all this fluid creativity, it seemed natural that the Centre would seek to work with some writers, especially when a generous philanthropist gave them a lot of money for this exact purpose.

Their Inaugural Writer in Residence last year was Charlotte Wood, whose writing was described as “innovative and confronting”. I have not actually read any of her novels, even though she is a Very Famous and Serious Literary Figure in Australia, because each time I come across an interview with her, she’s saying something that annoys me – for example, informing readers that they are lazy and immature if they enjoy reading novels with likeable characters. (I’d thought she was also the Serious Literary Australian Author who’d sneered at YA novels, complaining they were all about Issues that were resolved in “candy-floss epiphanies” involving trite “growth and change moments”, but then I realised it was Anna Funder who said that.) Anyway, I was interested to hear how Ms Wood’s residency had worked, but her description was a bit vague. I think there were some formal meetings and presentations, but she emphasised that many of her most valuable interactions with the Centre’s scientists had been serendipitous meetings in stairwells and so on. She told the scientists about her novel-in-progress (she noted that this required a mind-shift of her own, novelists being notoriously reluctant to discuss their work in its early stages) and asked them lots of questions, and then she incorporated this new information in her work. For example, when she told a geriatrician that her planned novel was about three women in their seventies, he made an offhand remark that at least one of the women would have a mother who was still alive and in her nineties, which came as a surprise to her. Another scientist challenged her to include some evolutionary biology in her novel, which she did by giving one of the characters an elderly dog with dementia.

Her novel about aging – which is still a work in progress – does sound very interesting and I’m keen to read it. Mind you, Ms Wood did manage to make me roll my eyes (metaphorically speaking, of course) at least once, when she claimed that elderly women characters in OTHER books (and indeed, in our entire culture) are ALWAYS depicted as frail, incompetent and obsessed with the difficulties caused by their aging bodies and minds, whereas her book will be UNIQUE in that it will have women characters who just happen to be in their seventies and otherwise are as real and complex as younger characters, although of course she will avoid making her characters look like the ridiculously happy, healthy and wealthy people in glossy retirement home advertisements. Now, I can think of at least half-a-dozen well-written novels with real, interesting elderly women characters and I’m not even researching this area, so I don’t think it’s all that unique. But possibly I misunderstood what Ms Wood was saying or my listening comprehension had been biased by my previous impressions of her.

Then Alana Valentine, who’d been commissioned by the Centre to write a play about body dysmorphia, read some scenes from her work-in-progress. Ms Valentine interviews people on a particular theme – in this case, how people, especially women, prepare for their wedding day – and then uses their words to construct a play. The scenes involved a wedding dress couturière talking about a distressed customer being emotionally abused by her thinner mother and sister at her wedding dress fitting, and then a fat woman discussing her fear of even entering a wedding dress shop to look for a dress. The scenes were funny and sad and thought-provoking, and she read them very well. She’d been planning to drag audience members up on stage to enact another scene with her, but the session was running out of time and this idea had to be abandoned (to the great relief of the audience).

Professor Simpson was keen to note how the Centre’s scientists had benefitted from the partnership with the writers, by increasing the scientists’ awareness of a different form of creativity. However, he stressed that this was not the sort of thing that could be measured in relation to Key Performance Indicators and that the writers weren’t being called upon to ‘communicate science’ in any kind of didactic way. The Centre is also considering partnerships with other creative types, including visual artists and musical composers. One audience member asked whether Ms Wood had felt the residency put a lot of pressure on her to ‘deliver the goods’, which I’d also wondered about, but Ms Wood felt that it had been no more than the usual novel-writing pressure (that is, hoping it will all work in the end) and in fact, the Centre had provided a free and inspiring atmosphere and the scientists had been generous and helpful in sharing their knowledge.

No one actually answered the question of whether writers can prevent disease, but that was okay. It was an interesting discussion, I learned some things and I got to take a nice walk around Sydney Harbour.

I should probably also mention that my new book, which will be out later this year, is all about science and medicine and is set in the University of Sydney. More about that later.

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

‘The Genius of Birds’ by Jennifer Ackerman

'The Genius of Birds' by Jennifer AckermanCould there be a book title more perfectly designed to appeal to my interests? Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a fascinating exploration of bird intelligence, which begins with a description of the New Caledonian crow’s amazing ability to make and use tools in a variety of contexts. Of course, other birds also use found objects – to hook food out of holes, to carry water or honey to their nests, even to fight off enemies (with one documented case of a crow and a jay having a ‘sword’ fight with a sharp twig). However, tool use is just one of an awe-inspiring array of abilities displayed by birds.

I was especially interested to read about the complex social skills of different bird species. Birds tease one another, play together, teach useful skills to younger birds and console family members after an upsetting event. Some of them spy on and steal from their rivals, kidnap baby birds or feign injury to fool an enemy. They are sensitive to injustice and, just like dogs and primates, will refuse to work for a smaller reward than their peers. They can choose to delay gratification to receive a bigger reward later (which many humans struggle to do) and will bring gifts to those who have rescued or fed them (although not necessarily gifts that most humans will appreciate – one girl in Seattle received buttons, screws, hinges, a tiny plastic tube and a rotting crab claw).

Bird song is also complex, with many similarities to human language. Just like humans, young birds have an instinctual urge to vocalise, with an ‘optimal period’ of learning. Like humans, they learn by imitation and practice, although some birds are far superior to humans in the number of ‘languages’ they can learn and show amazing acoustic consistency when singing a particular song. Birds sing the dialect particular to their local area and can show ‘speech defects’, such as a stutter.

Other human-like abilities include architectural and artistic skills. There’s a wonderful description of an Australian satin bowerbird building not a nest, but a boudoir for attracting and seducing females:

“First, he furiously clears debris from an area about a yard square and then sets about diligently collecting twigs and grasses, which he distributes evenly to make his ‘platform’. From this collection, he selects choice twigs to plant in two neat rows, creating a kind of avenue carefully positioned to catch the morning strike of sun. At the northern end, he arranges his bed of fine twigs, evening it out. This will serve as the background for his panoply of decorations – and also as a sort of dance floor, where he will later offer up some showy pirouette and song.

Next comes the business of collecting treasures. Not just any object will do. This bird is bullish on blue: cornflower-blue tail feathers from a parrot, lavender lobelia blossoms, shiny blue fruits from the quandong tree, purple petunias, and blue delphiniums stolen from a nearby homestead, along with fragments of cobalt glass or pottery, navy blue hair ribbons, bits of turquoise tarp, blue bus tickets, straws, toys, ballpoint pens, that [turquoise glass] eyeball, and his prize, a baby-blue pacifier pilfered from his neighbor. These he arranges artfully against his twig canvas. If his flowers wither or his berries shrivel, he’ll replace them with fresh ones. Watch for a few more days, and you might see him paint a chest-high band on the inside of his twig hall, using dried hoop pine needles he has chewed and crushed in his beak.”

Other birds build ingenious nests from natural and human-made materials, with sparrows even adding cigarette butts (which contain chemicals that repel bird parasites).

There’s an engrossing discussion of how pigeons and migratory birds manage their extraordinary feats of navigation and memory, which leads to a critique of our biased, anthropocentric definitions of ‘intelligence’. The author ends with a sober warning about how human activity – hunting, deforestation, pollution and climate change – is already threatening some bird species. Within a few decades, the effect on bird diversity could be catastrophic and this book demonstrates just how much we would lose.

Anyone with the slightest interest in birds will find this book fascinating, but it will also appeal to those interested in the wider field of human and animal cognition. Highly recommended!

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Alex and Me’ by Irene M. Pepperberg

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Rivers of London fans, here’s a good interview with Ben Aaronovitch at Radio National (although, beware, it contains big plot spoilers for the whole series). Also at Radio National, there’s an interview with Leanne Hall about Iris and the Tiger.

I liked this article about Mary Gernat’s lovely cover art for the 1960s editions of the Famous Five books – the artist used her four sons and the family dog, Patch, as models for her sketches and watercolours.

Here’s an interesting attempt to sort into Hogwarts Houses by asking two questions: Are you governed by morality or ethics, and do you derive satisfaction from internal or external validation? (As always, I get thrown straight into Ravenclaw.)

A recent BBC poll of non-British critics about the greatest British novels of all time came up with a list in which women writers dominated the top ten and made up half of the top fifty. As I’d only read fifty-five of the books, I’ve added a few titles to my To Read list, although I think I can live quite happily without Lucky Jim and the two listed D H Lawrence novels.

I feel I’ve read a few too many of these type of novels lately (“I’m going to write a story about a character who feels the way I feel! Middle class, educated, with seemingly every advantage, but who still feels aimless and dissatisfied … Someone with my lived experience will be able to shine a penetrating dramatic light on the problems that arise when you don’t really have other problems.”)

In happier news, the new(ish) Australian children’s laureate is Leigh Hobbs, and hooray, he has a new Mr Chicken book out – Mr Chicken Lands on London!

If you happen to be in London (with Mr Chicken) and are worried about air quality – fear not, the Pigeon Air Patrol is on the case. The pigeons, equipped with tiny backpacks, measure nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other volatile compounds and send the results to Plume Labs for analysis. Londoners can request a reading for their particular location (by sending a tweet, of course). The patrol team includes “Coco, the ‘maverick’, Julius, the ‘hipster’, and Norbert — the ‘intellectual’”.

Finally, in important cephalopod news, a previously unknown species of milky-white octopus has been spotted four kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The octopus is currently nicknamed ‘Caspar the Friendly Ghost’. It joins another a new species, a tiny orange octopus discovered last year that scientists would like to name Opisthoteuthis adorabilis because it is just so adorable.

Dated Books, Part Nine: Friday’s Tunnel

A note for the benefit of those new to this series: ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be a bit . . . odd. Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney falls mostly into the charmingly nostalgic category, with the dated bits generally being amusing, rather than annoying. It was recommended to me by Debbie during my search for 1950s schoolgirl books, so thank you, Debbie – I thoroughly enjoyed this book (and took careful notes on the schoolgirl slang, hobbies, clothes and other useful information contained therein). But first I ought to show you the lovely old hardcover I purchased from Rainy Day Books:

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

This was once a library book at the ‘City of Collingwood Junior Library’ and the following letter to ‘Junior Borrowers’ is pasted in the front:

'Junior Borrower' letter

I wish all the adults who borrow books from my local library would follow that advice.

I should also point out that my 1959 (first?) edition includes lots of great illustrations by the author, as well as a detailed map (which certainly came in handy, given the complicated plot).

Friday’s Tunnel is narrated by February Callendar, who we learn is “stuck in bed for ages with a broken nose, a broken pelvis and a broken several other things” and is therefore at leisure to write down the extraordinary story of how she managed to save the world during her summer holidays, when she’d actually planned to spend all her time practising show jumping for the district gymkhana and improving her overarm tennis serve (both of which turn out to be very useful skills when dealing with the villains). She also explains that she intends to write “the sort of book I like to read, which means one with a map and drawings, and talk on every page and not one with long descriptions about the sun’s early rays touching the feathery beech-tips with gold and gossamer quivering in the dew, because I think dew is soppy and anyway I’m usually still asleep when all that sort of thing is going on”.

February’s adventure reminded me quite a lot of the Tintin books, even though she herself never actually leaves England. It involves, among other things, a world crisis triggered by a (possibly fake) coup d’état in a small island kingdom called Capria, a mysterious mineral that might be capable of blowing up the world, a millionaire businessman and his vulgar wife, a mysterious plane crash, a missing journalist, a dead body in a canal, a celebrity racing car driver, secret tunnels, a sinister sweet shop owner and a newspaper cartoon strip that may (or may not) contain vital coded messages.

And as with Tintin, the attitudes are from the 1950s. The villains are all swarthy and “foreign-looking”, even if they’re British. The Caprian President, Umbarak, however, was educated at Harrow, so he is “a Christian and a highly civilised man with Western ideas who had enabled the Caprians to live free of fear for the only time in history”, whereas his half-brother Zayid, the coup leader, is “just a bandit like his Moslem forefathers . . . mixed up in every racket in the Mediterranean and the Middle East”. Umbarak has “a gentle, beautiful face like a prince in a fairy tale” and is described as a “saint”, while Zayid looks “splendidly fierce”. I don’t think Zayid is actually Muslim, though, because he drinks alcohol, gambles, sells dope and smuggles “Jewish emigrants into Palestine”. It must also be noted that February and her brother Friday are much more sympathetic towards Zayid (February thinks he sounds “more fun” and she “rather sympathised with him for shutting Umbarak up in the Jenin Palace”, while Friday thinks Umbarak sounds “wet” and that one of Zayid’s more ingenious dope-smuggling rackets is “a wizard idea”). A friend of February’s father, a Very Important Man in the War Office, later gives a pompous speech about how Britain ought to take charge of all the stock of the mineral caprium because “England is the only Great Power who could use caprium as it must be used if the world is to survive”, although his view is countered by the newspaper editor who says, “We happen to believe that if the world is to survive, Great Powers simply must stop grabbing everything they think they can get away with and try behaving openly for a change.” (Sadly, the current leaders of the Great Powers do not appear to agree with this last viewpoint. And I think the characters in this book are being overly optimistic to describe Britain in 1959 as a “Great Power”.)

But it was all the science-y bits that had me either groaning or laughing at their dated-ness. I’ve noticed during my recent 1950s reading that fiction writers of the time seemed obsessed with the notion that science was about to annihilate humanity (which I guess is understandable after nuclear bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945) and that all scientists, but especially physicists, were believed to be secretive, incomprehensible and slightly deranged. So I was not surprised to see that science plays a large role in this book. A schoolboy friend of February’s is “mad on chemistry” and is constantly doing dangerous experiments (which, by the way, cause no concern to his parents, even when he burns off his sister’s hair with acid). He buys a lot of different cigarette brands (one of which is supposed to be “non-cancer”) to test, and wonders why one is wrapped in paper that won’t burn. His father, the village doctor, thinks the paper is probably made of asbestos:

“No reason why it shouldn’t be used instead of tin-foil,” he said. “Perhaps it preserves the cigarettes better in some way.”

Then he wanders off (probably smoking his pipe). Mind you, this is the same doctor who cheerfully discusses his patients’ details with February, explaining that the old woman he’s about to see only has a fever because she “gets herself so excited with all the things she thinks are wrong with her” so he’s going to give her “the nastiest tasting medicine I can think of, which is asafoetida and bromide”. Which is probably an accurate description of the behaviour of doctors, in the days before anyone paid much attention to ideas like “patient confidentiality” and “evidence-based medicine”.

But the funniest part was when the War Office bigwig gave a solemn lecture on physics, explaining that uranium is “the heaviest” element1 and that Britain’s “top nuclear physicist has had a nervous breakdown” because the mysterious mineral caprium has “upset his confidence in himself” and he’s been forced to accept that “all his knowledge is no less ludicrous than was the flat earth theory in its day”. I’m pretty sure “top nuclear physicists” don’t usually go “round the bend” when they come across a new, interesting element (isn’t that what they hope for?) and in any case, the reported properties of caprium don’t actually seem to prove that the atomic theory is wrong. (Also, despite no one understanding what caprium does, the War Office bigwig straps a bag of (possibly radioactive) caprium to his abdomen to cure his duodenal ulcer, which, of course, has been caused by the stress of dealing with the caprium crisis.)

Overall, though, I enjoyed February’s story very much. Her voice is lively and often very funny, her eccentric family and friends are entertaining, and the dated bits are quite amusing. Recommended for fans of Tintin or for those who wish the Famous Five books had had more plausible characters and more complex plots.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

_____

  1. I was pretty sure that heavier elements had been synthesised during or just after the war, so I looked up the history of the periodic table, and yes, by 1959, there were at least five discovered elements heavier than uranium, with even heavier elements that had been theorised and were later observed. But then again, the author couldn’t Google this information in thirty seconds, as I just did.

Why Science Book Titles Are The Best Book Titles

Browsing the science shelves at my local library yesterday, I found the following books:

How to Fossilise Your Hamster and Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist

Dunk Your Biscuit Horizontally

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?

The Velocity of Honey

Lies, Deep Fries and Statistics

The Joy of X

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?

Ignorance

Actual book titles, people. And How to Fossilise Your Hamster is “The must-have companion to the No. 1 bestsellers, Does Anything Eat Wasps? and Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

Science Reads: ‘Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates’ by Franz H. Messerli

To end Science Reads Week on a lighter note, I’d like to draw your attention to an article1 published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year, which investigates whether eating chocolate makes you smarter. Dr Messerli notes that dietary flavanols, found in dark chocolate, green tea and red wine, have been shown to improve the blood supply to the brain and cause rats to perform better on cognitive tests. He also notes that countries with a high consumption of chocolate, particularly Switzerland, tend to produce a lot of Nobel laureates. When he analyses the data, he finds “a surprisingly strong correlation” between chocolate intake and the number of Nobel Prizes won in a given country. Unfortunately, Sweden messes up his results. But don’t worry, Dr Messerli has an explanation:

“Given its per capita chocolate consumption of 6.4 kg per year, we would predict that Sweden should have produced a total of about 14 Nobel laureates, yet we observe 32. Considering that in this instance the observed number exceeds the expected number by a factor of more than 2, one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.”

Yes, the article is completely tongue-in-cheek. However, I feel this issue needs further investigation, so I’m off to eat some Lindt 70% Dark Chocolate. Purely in the interests of scientific investigation, you understand. Happy ‘Science Reads Week’ to you all, and may your own scientific investigations be similarly delicious!

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  1. Sorry, this article is now only available to NEJM subscribers.