Tag Archives: Book review

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

I’m about to trash skepticism (as a cult) but before I do, I want to recommend that you get Steve Novella’s excellent new edition of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

I no longer call myself a skeptic. Well, actually, I probably never really did, but now I’m more explicit about that. Why? Two reasons. 1) Global warming and other science deniers call themselves skeptics, and I don’t want any confusion. 2) The actual “skeptics movement” is described as…

…a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism (also called rational skepticism). Scientific skepticism involves the application of skeptical philosophy, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).[1] The movement has the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research and are reproducible, as part of a methodological norm pursuing “the extension of certified knowledge”.[2] The process followed is sometimes referred to[by whom?] as skeptical inquiry.


That’s all nice and all, but I discovered that the actual skeptics movement is made out of people not quite so cleanly guided by a philosophy, roughly one third of whom are not really skeptics (such as Penn Jilette and James Randi, who allowed their libertarian philosophy to drive “skepticism” of anthropocentric global warming long after the scientific consensus was established), “mens rights activists” (MRAs) who vigorously attacked anyone speaking out in favor of women’s rights, against rape, etc., and #MeToo movement poster boys, who have for years used skeptical conferences as their own private meat markets.

Besides, I’m an actual scientist, so I can be a fan of science without having to be a fanboy, which makes it easier for me.

I started writing publicly, blogging, partly to be an on-line skeptic, to take on politically charged topics, especially as related to evolutionary biology, but other areas of science as well (and more recently, climate change), addressing falsehoods and misconceptions. But I very quickly discovered that there multiple and distinct kinds of “skepticism” make up the larger conversation.

There is a lot of very low level, knee jerk skepticism that is little more than uninformed reactionism, based on, at best, received knowledge. That is about as unskeptical as it gets. The Amazing Randy says Global Warming is nothing other than natural variation. Therefore, I will believe that. Uncritically. Some of this is what I long ago labeled as “hyperskepticism.” This is where potentially valid skepticism about a claim is melded with hyperbole. “There is not a single peer reviewed study that shows the bla bla bla bladiby bla” coming from the mouth of a person who has never once even looked for a peer reviewed study about any thing. They hyperskeptic may create entire categories of things that include claims worthy of debunking, and put all of the thing into the debunked category even if they are not.

A fairly benign example of this relates to CAM medicine. “CAM” refers to “complementary and alternative medicine” like acupuncture, rolfing, and the like. These are mostly forms of treatment that have no basis in science, and probably don’t do anything useful even if they sometimes cost real money. Hypersketpics put all CAM into the same category and light a match to it. But, there is a subset of CAM that is legit … the very fact that I wrote that sentence just there will disqualify me, and my entire post, and everything I ever say — there will be comments below that say “I stopped reading when you said “there is a subset of CAM that is legit”. OK, hold on a second, count to four. One two thee four. Now that all the hyperskeptics have gone off in a huff I can continue … and I can give you an example. There are people who undergo regular, uncomfortable, sometimes painful or sick-making treatments as part of their normal medical routine. Chemotherapy, dialysis, that sort of thing. We know that the quality of an individual’s life can be improved, their stress levels, reduced, and thus, probably, the outcome of their treatments improved or made less complicated, if the environment in which they get the treatments are more comfortable. This is why dentists put ferns and pictures of the ocean in their waiting rooms. There is evidence to suggest that surroundings should be considered in design of treatment rooms, waiting room, etc. (See for example, Brown and Gallant, 2006, “Impating Patient Outcomes Through Design: Acuity Adaptable Care/Universal Rom Design. “Critical Care Nursing Quarterly. 29:4(326-341) and Ulrich, Zimring, and Zhu, 2008, “A Review of the Research Literature on Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. HERD 1(3). They hyperskeptic wants divide the world into evidence based double blind study proven and everything else, with everything else being always wrong in all ways. (Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but only for the irony.) This concept, of considering room and environmental design, now standard, did exist before CAM (those dentists and their ferns) but the study an implementation of stress reducing design as we now know of it comes from the CAM movement. What is needed is not closing down CAM, but making it accountable. It would probably get much smaller if that happened, but what is left of it would be useful.

Having said all that, the skeptical world includes a number of excellent and widely respected actual self-identified skeptics who have science or medical backgrounds, and who occasionally write books that everyone should read. One such individual is Steven Novella, who wrote some time ago a skeptics guide to the universe. Well, that book is out of date (universes evolve) and there is now anew edition: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

Four others contributed to this volume, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

I do not agree with everything in this book. For example, although the discussion of placebo effect is excellent, I have a different take on it. I like to divide the effect up into different categories than I do, and I want to make a more explicit connection between the phenomenon called placebo effect and the role and meaning of a control. But for the most part, every single one of the more than 50 topics covered in this book is well treated, informative, and enjoyable to read. (See what I did there? I was a little skeptical of the book, so now, you know it must be good!)

Do get and read this book, get one for a friend for a holiday gift, and enjoy. But right now, before you even do that, to tho the Amazon page and find the negative reviews. There are only two now (the book just came out) but they are a hoot.

Learn SQL and Tell Stories With Your Data

First, let’s get this one thing out of the way. How do you pronounce “SQL.”

Donald Chamberlin, the co-developer of SQL, pronounces it by saying the letter out louse. Ess Cue Ell. However, many computer science teachers prefer “sequel” and in at least one poll, the latte won out. One of the most common implementations of the database language is mySQL, and that piece of software is officially pronounced “My Ess Cue Ell” and not “Mysequel.”

I myself have never once uttered the word “sequel” when referring to this database system. I have also never once uttered either the term “Jiff” or “Giff” in relation to *.gif files. They are, to me, “Gee Eye Eff” files. I admit, however, to calling *.jpg files “Jay pegs” even when they are not *.jpeg.

But I digress. We are here to talk about a new book, on SQL.

The book is Practical SQL: A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling with Data by the award winning journalist Anthony DeBarros. DeBarros is as much of a writer as he is a database geek, which gives this book a pleasant twist.

The book provides what you need to know to create databases and set up relationships. But don’t get excited, this is not a dating book.

See, a “database” isn’t really a thing, but a collection of things. Normally, at the root of a database is a set of tables, which look like squared off sections of spreadsheets, or highly organized lists, if you lay them out. But then, the different fields (columns) of the tables are related to each other. This is important. Let’s say you have a table of individuals in your club, and each individual has a set of skills they bring to the table. It is a model railroad club, so you’ve got engineers, artificial vegetation experts, landscape sculptors, background and sky painters, and so on. Also, each club member has a known set of days of the week and hours that they are available to meet or to manage some event you are having. Plus, they each have lunch food and drinks preferences for when you order out. Three of the members drive wheelchairs. And so on.

You have a table of dates and times that will be when your club will meet over the next year. You have a list of venues you will meet in. Each venue is associated with a different deli where you order out. Some of the venues are not wheelchair friendly, while some are.

Imagine putting together a big chart that shows all the events, who is going to them, what everyone will eat, what everyone will do, and special needs requirements, for the next ten years.

If that was one single giant structured table, each time a given member was included on a sublist because he or she, there would also be all the information about the person’s address, phone number, email, food preference, skill, etc. etc.

So you don’t do that. Instead, the database is taught to associate the name of each member with that member’s personal file, including all that personal information, in a way that lets you selective ignore or include that information. Then, the database lets you construct new, novel, virtual tables that combine the information in a clever way.

For instance, for an upcoming event, you can have a to-do list that includes which materials to order for a build of a new model, and whether or not the person who helps Joe with the wheelchair thing should be sent a note to remind him to definitely come, and a precise list to send to the corner deli, as well as the phone number of the deli, for lunch, and so on.

Tables, linked together with relationships, which are then mined to make these novel tables which are called queries.

You may need to import data, export data, clean up errors, you may be using a GIS system, creating automatic emails or mail merge documents, and at some point you might even want to analyze the data.

Practical SQL: A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling with Data tells you all the stuff you need to do in order to carry out these tasks. As is the usual case with No Starch Press books, the code that is used in the book is downloadable.

The book assumes you are using PostgreSQL, which is free (and there are instructions to get it) but all SQL systems are very similar, so that really doesn’t matter too much.

Everybody who works with data should know some SQL. All desktop operating systems (Linux, MacOS, Windows) use this sort of software and it runs about the same way on all of them. Just so you know, you are using SQL now reading this blog, because SQL or something like it lies at the base of pretty much every common way of serving up web pages. Prior to you clicking on the link, these very words were in a database file, along with the name of the post, a link to the graphic used, etc. etc. A bit of PHP code accessed the data from the SQL database and rendered it into HTML, which was then fed to your browser. SQL is one of those things that lies at the root of how we communicate on line, and the basics of how it works and what you can do with it have not changed in a long time. The first relational models go back to 1970. Remember “dbase”? That was an early version, deployed in the early 1980s. By the mid 1980s, everything you can do with modern SQL, to speak of, was implemented.

Enjoy and learn from Practical SQL: A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling with Data.

Birds of Central America: Review

Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama make up Central America. Notice that had I not used the Oxford Comma there, you’d be thinking “Costa Rica and Panama” was a country like Trinidad and Tobago. Or Antigua and Barbuda. Or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Anyway, those countries have about 1261 species of birds, and the newly minted Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Princeton Field Guides) by Andrew Vallely and Dale Dyer covers 1,194 of them (plus 67 probably accidentals). Obviously, many (nearly all) of those birds exist outside that relatively small geographic area, up in to North America and down into South America. But I’ll remind you that there are some 10,000 bird species, so this region has a bird list that represents 10% of that diversity. Nothing to shake a beak at.

This is a classic Peterson/Petrides style guide, with the usual front matter about bird id, geography, habitats, etc. Species draswings are on the left leaf while descriptions and range maps on the left. The drawings do not have Peterson Pointer lines, but there are a lot of drawings to clarify regional versions and life history stages. In fact, the attention to regional variation is a notable and outstanding feature of this file guide.

There is also an extensive bibliography with over 600 references. The book is medium format, not pocket but not huge, and just shy of 600 pages long. Also, last time I clicked through it was on sale. Know somebody going to Central America over winter break? Get this for them as their holiday gift!

Like the Princeton guides tend to be, this is a very nice book, well written, well constructed, and likely to become the standard for that region for the foreseeable future.

When the Uncertainty Principle goes to 11

When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal is a new book by the amazing Philip Moriarty. You may know Moriarty from the Sixty Symbols Youtube Channel.

You can listen to an interview Mike Haubrich and I conducted with Philip Moriarty here, on Ikonokast. Our conversation wanders widely through the bright halls of education, the dark recesses of of philosophy of science and math(s), the nanotiny, and we even talk about the book a bit.

Moriarty, an experienced and beloved teacher at the University of Nottingham, uses heavy metal to explain some of the most difficult to understand concepts of nano science. Much of this has to do with waves, and when it comes to particle physics, wave are exactly half the story. This idea came to him in part because of what he calls the great overlap in the Venn Diagram of aspiring physicists and intense metal fans. Feedback, rhythm, guitar strings twanging (or not), are both explained by the same theories that help us understand the quantum world, and are touchstones to explaining that world.

I’ve read all the books that do this, that attempt to explain this area of physics, and they are mostly pretty great. When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 does it the best. Is this because it is the most recent? Does Philip Moriarty stand on the shoulders of giants? Or is it because the author has hit on a better way of explaining this material, and thus, owes his greatness to the smallness of his contemporaries? We may never know, but I promise you that When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 is a great way to shoulder your way into the smallness of the smallest worlds.

As you will understand if you check out the Ikonokast interview, Moriarty has taken the risk of using math in this book. The math is straight forward and accompanied by explanation, so you do not have to be a math trained expert to use it and understand. Most importantly, while Moriarty uses music, metal, and other real life things to explain quantum physics, these analogies are more than just analogies. They are examples of similar phenomena on different scales. As Philip told me during the interview, we don’t diffract when we walk walk through a doorway, because the things that happen on nano scales don’t scale up. But wave functions function to pick apart both quantum mechanics and Metallica, so why not explore guitar strings, feedback, and mosh pits together with condensed particle physics?

I strongly recommend this book. Just get it, read it. Also, the illustrations by Pete McPartlan are fun and enlightening. Even if you think you understand quantum physics very well already, and I know most of my readers do, you will learn new ways of thinking or explaining.

Philip Moriarty is a professor of physics, a heavy metal fan, and a keen air-drummer. His research focuses on prodding, pushing, and poking single atoms and molecules; in this nanoscopic world, quantum physics is all. Moriarty has taught physics for more than twenty years and has always been struck by the number of students in his classes who profess a love of metal music, and by the deep connections between heavy metal and quantum mechanics. He’s a father of three — Niamh, Saoirse, and Fiachra – who have patiently endured his off-key attempts to sing along with Rush classics for many years. Unlike his infamous namesake, Moriarty has never been particularly enamored of the binomial theorem.

Amazing Book On Amazing Arachnids

I am strongly recommending Amazing Arachnids by Jillian Cowles.

This book is in line to win the Greg Laden’s Blog Science Book of the Year.

Sample text, to give a taste of the science
It looks like a high quality, almost coffee table like, book on the arachnids, things like mites and spiders and such. But that is only what it appears to be on the surface. Just below the surface, it is a compendium of evolutionary amazingness, a detailed description of the photogenic history, behavioral biology, and co-evolution of plants and animals, with almost all the protagonists in the numerous loosely connected stories being one sort or another of amazing arachnid.

Geographically, the book focuses on the arid American Southwest. This allows the author to be quasi-comprehensive in coverage of species (about 300 from among 11 orders). It also allows the author to tell the story of these critters as a story, with interconnected features of evolution and ecology. This is literary hard core science, with great illustrations (about 750 color photos, and other illustrations).

Because of the US SW focus, it might be a better purchase for people living in just that area. But as is the case with a handful of other nature-oriented books, like the The New Neotropical Companion, the science content and overall interest of the book transcends geography. You’re not really going to want to get that close to these arachnids anyway….

This is a very good book. You will learn things, even if you already know a lot about arachnids.

The author is a clinical microbiologists and photographer.

Life on Earth: Dinosaurs; A Kids science book

I usually think of flip-lift books as being appropriate for little kids who can’t read yet. I remember my daughter being obsessed, for two years or more, with an Arthur flip book. She needed to look under every single flap, in order (many were in fact numbered or had letters on them, to teach counting and the alphabet, so there was indeed an order). There were pictures, not words, under the flaps. Continue reading Life on Earth: Dinosaurs; A Kids science book

Strange Survivors: Book Note

Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life by Oné R. Pagán is an excellent book with the evolutionary arms race, competition, and nature red in tooth and claw (and many other parts) as its theme. Well written and humorous, and scientifically accurate.

Mike Haubrich and I interviewed the author, and the Ikonokast Podcast of that interview IS HERE.

From the Publisher: Continue reading Strange Survivors: Book Note

Sexual Selection Up To Date: A Taste for the Beautiful

A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction is a popular science book written by an actual expert on the field, addressing the ways in which the world of animals is shaped by sexual selection.

One of Darwin’s major contributions to the panoply of theoretical and observational work we call “evolution” was to recognize, describe, and model sexual selection. Continue reading Sexual Selection Up To Date: A Taste for the Beautiful

Making Sense of Weather and Climate

Read Making Sense of Weather and Climate: The Science Behind the Forecasts, by Mark Denny if you want to … well, do what the title of the book says.

I know a lot of you are interested in global warming/climate change, so you need to know that this book is not mainly about that (but it is covered). Rather, this book is the Rosetta Stone that allows you to connect a general understanding of the planet (it is round, it spins, it has an atmosphere that includes water vapor, and tends to reside between -50 and +50 degrees C, etc.) and the person on the TV talking about air masses going up and down and what is going to happen during “the overnight” and “the overday” and such. Continue reading Making Sense of Weather and Climate

Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

BOOK NOTE: I interrupt this book review to note that Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman is currently available, again, as a Kindle book, for two bucks. And now returning to our regularly scheduled review.

Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs is not a pocket field guide. How could it be? There are over a million species of insects and probably a lot more (huge numbers certainly remain to be discovered) and of them, some 100,000 exist in North America. I’m actually not sure how many are represented in this book, but several thousand distributed among some 3,000 illustrations, mostly color photographs. Continue reading Garden Insects of North America: Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs, New Edition

Birds of Australia: New Book

There are close to just under 900 species of bird in Australia, and The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin covers just over 900 of them. Where do the extras come from? Sea birds in the nearby oceans, I think.

This is an excellent bird book that all Australian birders simply need to have. Holiday season is just around the corner. Get one of these for your favoriate Australian!

This is not exactly a pocket guide. It is more of a car guide, and you better have a big glove box. The 6.8 x 9.7 inch format is hefty, and there are over 550 pages of high quality thickish paper.

There are some 30 pages of excellent front matter giving all the usual contextual information any bird guide gives. Then, the species are laid out taxonomically with color coded bleeds grouping major taxa. Each spread of pages has information on the left and pictures, which are excellent Peterson style drawings, on the right.

The typical spread has four species, but many have three. A species will be represented by several drawings showing the different morphs (by age status and sex, typically) as well as other features, such as what a wing looks like in flight, or a close up of a tail’s markings, etc. The authors were very thoughtful in this aspect of the layout. The book is designed to help you identify the bird. Information needed to address subspecies or hybrids, etc. is provided. There are range maps for everything on the same page layout.

There is a checklist, glossary, and index.

The Australian Bird Guide has spread the 900 birds across 4,000 images divied up on 249 plates (with, as mentioned, three or four bird species per plate).

A very notable feature of The Australian Bird Guide is what appears to be a very extensive coverage of the elusive sea birds in the region. Distribution and status of the bird species is very up to date as well.

About the authors:

Peter Menkhorst is a principal scientist with the Victorian government and has forty years’ experience in ecological research and the survey and management of Australian mammals and birds. He is the author of A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. Danny Rogers is an ornithologist specializing in shorebird ecology and patterns of feather molt in birds, and works for the Victorian government environment department. Rohan Clarke is a lecturer in vertebrate ecology at the School of Biological Sciences, Monash University. Jeff Davies is a Melbourne-based artist who specializes in portraits of Australian birds and their environments. Peter Marsack is an award-winning wildlife artist based in Canberra. Kim Franklin is a freelance artist and illustrator who has exhibited worldwide and is based in Adelaide.

Discovering The Mammoth: The Evolution Of Modern Scientific Thinking

It wasn’t a mammoth, it was a mastodon. But it was still a big hairy elephant featured at the climax-end of the main exhibit hall in the New York State museum. And it was an exhibit to end all exhibits. The New York State Museum, during its heyday, was world class, and the hall of evolution, which seemed old enough to have involved Darwin himself as a consultant, featured the reconstructed skeleton as well as a fur-covered version, of the creature discovered in a kettle only a few miles away. That exhibit, along with a dozen other spectacular exhibits that to my knowledge have not been equaled elsewhere or since, are the reason I became a scientist, and probably helped direct me towards the study of prehistory and archaeology.

It is because of that background to my own thinking that I paid a lot of attention over the years to elephants and elephant evolution. I got to help excavate an African four-tusker one year even though I had to push off my other responsibilities to do so. I’ve studied the pseudo archaeological traces left behind by wild forest elephants in the Congo, and now and then, ate one, which may seem strange but I was living among the Pygmy elephant hunters at the time so it seemed like the thing to do.

Several years ago, I came across John McKay. First, his blog, then I met him in person. He had been writing about Pleistocene megafauna but focusing on mammoths. Over our many years of friendship, I watched as he steadily worked on a book putting together his findings, and finally, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science has been completed and is out and in print now!

I liken the discovery of the Mammoth by western science to the mostly lost to history but critical coral reef debate involving Darwin. Both events shaped how we do science today and at the same time revealed mind-changing features of the natural world. I didn’t know until interviewing John on Ikonokast (check out the podcast!) that he had originally become interested in Mammoth by a somewhat indirect route because of the extinct animal’s role in, let us say, alt-theories about the Earth and its history. But regardless of how John became interested, he discovered a complex and almost inexplicable relationship between what people were thinking, the way they arrived at those thoughts, and reality which led to a centuries-long struggle to understand something that to us, today, is fairly simple but to 19th century scholars was outrageous.

Religion and cultural belief prohibited thinking about extinctions or the evolution of one species into another, while at the same time, these bodies of thought and knowledge provided explanations for ancient mammal remains that were, to our minds today, seemingly unbelievable. It was the process of going from being totally wrong and basing conclusions on a combination of bad information and unsupportable logic, to the state of understanding that mammoths are a different species of elephant that once existed where we find their remains, but that went extinct because of major changes in their habitats and possibly other causes.

And that is only part of the central story John brings to the reader in the engagingly written and carefully researched Discovering the Mammoth.

I tend to divide science books into two categories: those written by writers about science, and those written by scientists. Both categories have their duds and their great books, though the former category almost always lacks a certain depth and breath but often in a way the typical interested reader can’t see. Meanwhile, books in the latter category can easily go off the rails or assume too much, and be a burden to read. John McKay’s book is written by an expert on the field (this book is in lieu of his PhD thesis) who had previously spent years developing his craft of explaining scientific things, so it is well done in that regard. But there is another reason the typical reader of this blog will grok McKay’s Mammoths. John’s passion other than dead woolly elephants is falsehoods. This is an interest we share. John McKay is a Snope of science, especially in certain areas, but better. Unlike Snopes, which is content to find enough chinks in the armor of some myth or another to snarkily discard it, McKay often recognizes the ways in which a falsehood informs, and contains non-trivial truth, while various truths can misinform while at the same time containing insidious or at least interesting falsehoods. It is his thinking about the way people get things wrong, combined with scholarly training in various areas of literature and history, that uniquely allow him to tell this particular important story about the the evolution of modern scientific thought.

I highly recommend Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Also, consider it as a holiday gift for your favorite smart person, so they can get even smarter.

CheMystery is a graphic novel

CheMystery authored by C. Al Preece is a graphic superhero novel, drawn by Josh Reynolds, that teaches — wait for it — Chemistry!

A radiation accident transforms two youngsters into superheros, and simultaneously creates an evil villain for them to fight. The graphic novel covers that story and is indurated with frequent cleverly placed molecule size chemistry lessons.

Teachers need to know that this book complies with Next Gen science standards and is very classroom friendly. Indeed, author Preece is a chemistry and physical science teacher (and a trained chemist).

It is a great read, an engaging story, and the lessons are informative and easy on the eyes. I recommend it for the youth in your life who is into science. Teachers should have a look at it!