Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean

“It’s invisible. It’s ever-present. Without it, you would die in minutes. And it has an epic story to tell.

With every breath, you literally inhale the history of the world. On the ides of March, 44 BC, Julius Caesar died of stab wounds on the Senate floor, but the story of his last breath is still unfolding; in fact, you’re probably inhaling some of it now. Of the sextillions of molecules entering or leaving your lungs at this moment, some might well bear traces of Cleopatra’s perfumes, German mustard gas, particles exhaled by dinosaurs or emitted by atomic bombs, even remnants of stardust from the universe’s creation.

Tracing the origins and ingredients of our atmosphere, Kean reveals how the alchemy of air reshaped our continents, steered human progress, powered revolutions, and continues to influence everything we do. Along the way, we’ll swim with radioactive pigs, witness the most important chemical reactions humans have discovered, and join the crowd at the Moulin Rouge for some of the crudest performance art of all time.”

Along with Mary Roach and Bill Bryson, Sam Kean is one of my “must-read” non-fiction authors.  One of the things that has always made his writing stand out from the crowd for me was not only his storytelling ability, but the way he links many disparate tales into a cohesive whole.  For instance, in his last book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, his saga of neuroscience was structured to parallel the brain itself.  The vignettes illustrated functions and parts of the brain starting with the brainstem (unconscious functions) and moving ever upwards and outward to the most “human” parts of the brain.  It gives what can be dense science writing a flow that keeps you engaged, even if you have to take it slow to digest all the info you’re being given.

Unfortunately, this book doesn’t accomplish that nearly as well as usual.  Mostly this is due to Kean’s subject matter–the composition of air.  There is no inherent underlying structure to air, so there’s no ready-made framework for talking about it an a linear manner.  It seems to be sort-of arranged by how common each molecule is, from most common to least, but that’s not a scaffolding that lends itself to telling a comprehensive tale about air as a whole.  To return to my earlier example, while the brain can easily be visualized, air can’t.

The solution I found to enjoying this book was to read it in small chunks.  When I tried reading more than a couple of chapters at a time, I found my attention wandering–there wasn’t anything pulling me to the next chapter to see how the connections played out.  However, when I read a single chapter at a time and then put the book down for a while, I enjoyed it much more.  Because of this, I can’t really call the book’s structure a flaw.  It just means that I think it’s better if you read it piecemeal.  I will still say, though, that Kean did a better job with his earlier works when he was able to write something that you could read straight through and enjoy as a larger whole.

Even so, the stories are interesting.  One of the first ones is about a man who stayed on the slopes of Mount St. Helens until he was literally blown away by the eruption.  Another deals with a man who created an entire stage routine around farting.  There are intriguing tidbits about how sound bounces around the atmosphere, and why.  And of course, there’s the scientific breakdown of why you are probably breathing in molecules exhaled by Caesar as he died on the floor of the Roman senate.  That thought experiment alone is worth the price of admission, because it’s going to make you ponder what’s in your lungs right now as you’re reading this.

Although not one of his best works, Caesar’s Last Breath still has a lot going for it.  Just take it bit by bit and  you’ll likely enjoy this exploration of what’s in the air you breathe.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg

“Alex & Me is the remarkable true story of an extraordinary relationship between psychologist Irene M. Pepperberg and Alex, an African Grey parrot who proved scientists and accepted wisdom wrong by demonstrating an astonishing ability to communicate and understand complex ideas. A New York Times bestseller and selected as one of the paper’s Top Ten Books of the Year, Alex & Me is much more that the story of an incredible scientific breakthrough. It’s a poignant love story and an affectionate remembrance of Pepperberg’s irascible, unforgettable, and always surprising best friend.”

Although this book obviously tackles an ongoing and complicated scientific experiment, Pepperberg never talks over her audience’s heads. Some scientific information is needed to get the context of some of Alex’s tests, but they’re presented simply and concisely. Readers are likely to learn a lot about the process of testing for results in the sciences. And such information allows readers to more fully appreciate Alex’s accomplishments.

There’s actually a lot going on in this book. It covers Alex’s tests during the ongoing experiment, his owner’s journey into a completely unexpected career and where it took her, the response of the scientific community in general over the course of time, and even touches on a few of the other studies going on (such as Koko the signing gorilla). The stories are so intertwined, though, that no one thread usurps any of the others. Alex is the main binding agent in all of these disparate yarns, and the author never loses sight of that fact. This book is, first and foremost, about Alex, and so Pepperberg never deviates far from him and his charming antics.

It’s a smart bit of editing that allows readers to follow Alex’s triumphs in a linear matter, each one building on the ones before it. There’s nothing scattershot about the author’s approach. Maybe having written so many scientific papers detailing Alex’s progress has paid off in this book. The writing is concise yet personable, straightforward yet humorous. I would be surprised if readers didn’t laugh out loud a time or two at some of the tricks Alex pulled on his hapless human friends.

There’s no telling what Alex would have accomplished, had he lived. His death is not only a great loss to the scientific community, but also a great loss to one wonderfully stubborn and creative researcher who was determined to change the world’s definition of “bird-brain”. Read Alex and Me and prepare to be amazed and touched.

This review was originally posted on August 2, 2010.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis Branch.

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Grunt by Mary Roach

gruntGrunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.”

I absolutely love Mary Roach’s books and look forward to each new one with eager anticipation.  When I was given the chance to read Grunt early, I nearly singed the keyboard clicking on the “Request” button.  Even so, I was a little hesitant–I didn’t much like her previous book, Gulp, feeling that it was too narrow in its focus–but I am happy to report that my fears were quickly done away with.

Much like Bill Bryson at his geeky best, Roach has the ability to take a subject, find all kinds of disparate facts relating to it, and pull them together into a coherent narrative that draws you in completely.  I think the choice of military science was a great one, because it allowed for both a broad overview (a look at military science in general) as well as specific topics (sleep deprivation as it relates to submarine personnel).  This lets readers keep an eye on the overarching subject while also allowing them to deep dive into specific aspects of that topic.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys random factoids, this is the book for you.  You’ll learn little tidbits of information that you never would have guessed at–for example, do you know how to do reconstructive surgery on a man’s genitals so that he can still have sex?  You will after you read this book.  But something else becomes clear as you go through the chapters: people in charge of research have to consider every aspect of their chosen field, and often they have to solve problems that most of us wouldn’t even recognize as problems to begin with.  Zippers on uniforms for snipers?… they’ll catch and unzip as a sniper crawls into position.  That’s just one of the surprising considerations you’ll find here.

With every book that Roach writes, I gain a new appreciation for science, and also for the scientists who have to think so far outside of the box that they might as well be on another planet.  Grunt is an excellent book to get to know Roach and her writing style, and I recommend it highly.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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