Sunday, 23 March 2008

The Surgeons – Charles R. Morris ****

Seeing a still-warm human heart, beating just minutes ago, sliced up takes some getting used to. For journalist Charles Morris as he observes a heart transplant, this is just another shock in his year-long stay with a team of top heart surgeons at a New York hospital.
His admiration for the medics is clear. Their skill, training and concentration have saved thousands of lives. And yet there is something eerie about this book, a hint of a horror movie. The physicians perform near miracles as they work on patients suspended between life and death by machines and clever tricks. But the cultural value of the heart is such that, fleetingly, there is the impression that surgeons are removing more than just flesh.
Morris’ descriptions convey the urgency and precision of heat surgery. He also reveals the contrasts: the delicate manipulation of tiny vessels around the heart during a by-pass operation and the sheer physical effort required to saw through the chest bone and later ratchet the rib cage back together. The endurance and stamina of the operating team – eight hours bent over a patient without a drink, food or toilet break while maintaining absolute concentration – is to be marvelled at.
The mixed emotions stimulated by the macabre runs to ‘harvest’ organs from the recently deceased are hard to deal with. Across New York state, teams gently remove organs – heart, lung, kidney and liver – from the dead, still pink from the life-support machines needed to keep the organs in top condition. The tragedy of an early death balanced against the priceless gift of life for four or five others.
The Surgeons is thought-provoking, gripping and occasionally desperately sad. It is an uneasy read, raising issues of mortality and who should receive precious donor organs. Morris’ almost blind devotion to the operating team contrasts with his swipe at the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. Technical terms, hard to avoid when describing open-heart surgery, can make procedures hard to follow, and the Americanisms – gurney (trolley), OR (operating theatre), for example — take some getting used to. Overall it’s a fast-moving book that holds the reader. Though written to mark the triumph of science, the feeling of witnessing a horror movie was hard to shake.
Review by Maria Hodges

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Proust and the Squid – Maryanne Wolf ***

There’s no doubt this is an eye-catching title, though it does seem a touch pretentious until you realize that Maryanne Wolf is pulling together Proust as someone who described his first experience of reading, and the squid which has given us a fair number of insights into the operation of the brain, due to its enormous and hence easily accessible neurons.
The premise of the book is appealing. Reading has transformed the human over the thousands of years, yet it’s not a ‘natural’ activity of the brain. So what is going on in our heads when we read? Of itself this is not really the premise of a full book but a good article – what was needed to make it more, was the history of science, context and people involved in our understanding of reading.
Where Wolf does this we get some excellent highlights. For instance, the revelation for those not into Ancient Greek history that Socrates came down firmly against reading, feeling it would damage the oral tradition – because words in a book can’t be questioned and asked for explanation – is both fascinating and insightful.
Unfortunately, though, much of the book isn’t like this. Sadly, for a book about reading I found myself skipping chunks because it was too – well, dull. There’s too much simple description of what’s happening in the brain when we read or woffly philosophising about reading without the narrative and interest of good popular science. It doesn’t help that there’s repeated about three times a confusion between correlation and causality. After listing a very short number of ‘very creative’ people who may have had dyslexia, Wolf (whose own child is dyslexic) asserts that the fact that such creative people were dyslexic (there’s a fair amount of speculation as the list includes, for instance da Vinci) ‘is not coincidental’. Unfortunately it is even easier to assert that the many very creative people who weren’t/aren’t dyslexic ‘is not coincidental.’ This isn’t science.
Overall, then, an interesting idea with some excellent points along the way, but disappoints as a popular science book.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Book of Numbers – Peter J. Bentley ***

It’s good to see someone taking a different approach to adult popular science – and that’s certainly the case here. Peter Bentley’s book is big and glossy, packed with colour images. It has a look of quality media about it. Even the way the chapters are numbered is different – so it grabs the attention straight away.
The text is a fairly straightforward tack through the history of numbers. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of number, but uses that as a springboard to take in a wide range of interesting topics. So, for example, the first chapter after the introduction is nominally about zero, and certainly covers it, but also goes into Roman numerals (and the difficulty of doing arithmetic without zeroes), counting and speaking numbers and the calendar. Although each chapter is hung on a numerical subject, they have a good selection of people to give the content context, pulling us through history at a brisk pace. In fact so strong is the people orientation that the the bibliography is arranged by person, not by topic. Bentley’s writing is always approachable, his style brisk in the main part, though delving into a little more depth in side bars that are sometimes QI-ish in their obscurity.
The acid test of any book that uses novel presentation is whether that novelty gets the subject across better, or whether the medium gets in the way of the message. With The Book of Numbers I’m not convinced the effect is entirely positive. For younger readers the lavish use of pictures, making it feel more Dorling Kindersley than grown up, might go down well, but as an adult, even though some were interesting, I felt a bit patronised. I guess they will appeal to trivia lovers, as they are often quite tangential to the text. For example, one pair of pages dealing with the number 1 has two large illustrations relating to the philosopher’s stone, simply because one alchemist said the stone was ‘one in essence’. Not exactly helpful illustrations in understanding numbers.
As for the chapter numbering scheme, which goes -1, 0, 0.000000001, 1 and proceeds up to (virtual) infinity and then strangely to i, it does nothing more than irritate. It even seems to have confused the author. One chapter is called Small is Beautiful. He comments in the text ‘The title of this chapter is 1 nanometre, as well as being the decimal fraction of 1/1,000,000,000.’ It took me several minutes looking at the chapter title ‘small is beautiful’ at the top of the page trying to work out how this ‘was’ one nanometre, before I looked at the contents page and realized he meant the chapter number.
The other problem with the book is that the light and airy approach it takes sometimes totally wipes out the content. There is a chapter on e, the base of natural logarithms, entitled The Greatest Invention. This was really important we are told. Without e ‘we might have no cars or passenger aeroplanes. We might have no computers. Instead of reading this book, you might have been working in a mill or a coalmine.’ Leaving aside that the reader could be a mill worker or miner and might be a trifle offended by the implications of this, he then goes on to talk about base 10 logarithms and calculus. There is no explanation whatsoever of why e is ‘the greatest invention’ and gives us cars, planes, computers and the ability to stay out of mills.
Overall it’s a great subject, covered in an entertaining way, but a book that only skims the surface and leaves you wanting more. Each chapter really should have had a few suggestions of other books to read more on the topics. Having seen his quick summary of zero, for example, the reader may well want to dig deeper. The bibliography is useless for this. It isn’t further reading of the popular science kind, it’s research material, and because it is organized by person (but in the order they crop up in the book, rather than alphabetically) it’s impractical to use. The book comes across as neither one thing nor another. Not a coffee table book, or a decent read. Not designed for adults or for children. As such, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Review by Brian Clegg