Book Review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

cover78814-mediumThe Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
Publication date:
 22 October 2015
Genre:  Science
Length:  496 pages
Published by:  John Murray Press
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist – more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there’s a penguin, a giant squid – even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy’s Own story: Humboldt explored deep into the rainforest, climbed the world’s highest volcanoes and inspired princes and presidents, scientists and poets alike. Napoleon was jealous of him; Simon Bolívar’s revolution was fuelled by his ideas; Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt; and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo owned all his many books. He simply was, as one contemporary put it, ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’.

Taking us on a fantastic voyage in his footsteps – racing across anthrax-infected Russia or mapping tropical rivers alive with crocodiles – Andrea Wulf shows why his life and ideas remain so important today. Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and The Invention of Nature traces his ideas as they go on to revolutionize and shape science, conservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. He wanted to know and understand everything and his way of thinking was so far ahead of his time that it’s only coming into its own now. Alexander von Humboldt really did invent the way we see nature.

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and John Murray Press for providing me with this copy.

It seems so unlikely that someone who was so influential in so many areas of science, art, and philosophy could be largely forgotten, but that seems to be the case with Humbolt.

Get ready to feel completely inadequate with your life achievements to date as you read through this chronology of his astonishing life and career.

Individual events are barely lingered on for any time at all before the book races on to the next event.  This is a matter of necessity for the sheer amount of material to be covered.

Humbolt travelled to an incredible number of places, and took meticulous interest in every detail of every place he visited.  He advised US presidents, inspired revolutionaries, artists, poets, authors, and recognised and documented the effect of human actions on nature before anyone else.

The first two-thirds of the book cover Humbolt’s remarkable life, and the final third covers some of the most notable of those who went on to make world-changing achievements after Humbolt’s death, inspired by and following on from Humbolt’s work.

The book is written in an easy, conversational style that feels like having a glass of wine with a friend, and being told a huge, incredible, and compelling anecdote.  I was hanging on its every word from the opening scene until the closing conclusions.

Book Review: The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

cover85065-mediumThe Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann
Publication date:
  22 March 2016
Genre:  Non Fiction, Science, History
Length:  320 pages
Published by:  Yale University Press, London
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:

Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both shocking and sad.

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and Yale University Press for providing me with this copy.

Linda Stratmann is best known as a Crime Fiction writer, and confesses a fascination with the Victorian era, and Victorian Crime.  It feels as though this book is a culmination of the research which goes into her Victorian Crime novels.

The narrative voice maintains a Dickensian vibe in between quotes from newspapers, essays, letters, court records, trial records, and other published sources from the era.  It feels comfortable and fitting.

There is a lot of passion in this book.  Stratmann’s Author’s Note explains that although she avoids gory gruesome details in her Frances Doughty novels, in this book she will not spare the reader’s stomach.  She also explains that she doesn’t intend the book to be a compendium of poison murders.  Rather than present a list of unconnected, renowned cases, it is a story of “a duel of wits and resources”.  Stratmann tells the stories of the poison cases, the characters involved, the fate of the victim, and who got punished and how they were convicted.  They are all worthy of Miss Marple, Poirot, and Jessica Fletcher.  The motives for murder are mostly passion, greed or revenge, but a couple are shockingly cold, seemingly just for the sake of the act of murder itself.

Each case described justifies its place in the book, showing how it affected policy and law-making; how both poisons were sold, and how poisoning prosecutions were conducted.  Newspaper coverage at the time becomes part of these stories, influencing public opinion.

Notable figures in the emerging science of toxicology working to develop poison detection techniques add to the drama.  Vengeful acts weren’t only reserved for the perpetrators of poisonings.  In this competitive circle of innovation is a dramatic story of pride, jealousy, shattered reputations, misappropriated glory, and accusations of sabotage.

The Secret Poisoner paints a picture of Victorian society, before welfare reforms, and at the birth of modern science.  Ugly characteristics of human beings sit alongside the more noble attributes.  Even if non-fiction isn’t your genre of choice, this is still a page-turner full of dubious characters and unexpected twists.

Book review: The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

26150770The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll
Publication date:
  10 May 2016 (US), 22 August 2016 (UK Kindle Edition), 01 September 2016 (UK Hardback)
Genre:  Non Fiction, Science
Length:  480 pages
Published by:  Penguin Group Dutton (US), Oneworld Publications (UK)
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:

Does human purpose and meaning fit into a scientific worldview?

Already internationally acclaimed for his elegant, lucid writing on the most challenging notions in modern physics, Sean Carroll is emerging as one of the greatest humanist thinkers of his generation as he brings his extraordinary intellect to bear not only on Higgs bosons and extra dimensions but now also on our deepest personal questions.  Where are we? Who are we? Are our emotions, our beliefs, and our hopes and dreams ultimately meaningless out there in the void?

In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human level–and then how each connects to the other.  Carroll’s presentation of the principles that have guided the scientific revolution from Darwin and Einstein to the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe is dazzlingly unique.

Carroll shows how an avalanche of discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed our world and what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning.

The Big Picture is an unprecedented scientific worldview, a tour de force that will sit on shelves alongside the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson for years to come.

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook advanced-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with this copy.

The Big Picture brings together physics and philosophy to consider some of the big questions of life, the universe and everything.  This could have resulted in an unwieldy lump of a book, but this 480-page beast has been broken down into well thought-out sections and manageable chapters which walk you through Sean Carroll’s thought-process.

The book seeks show how our scientific understanding of the universe can explain how the universe came into existence, how life was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics of this universe, and how consciousness is an inevitable consequence of life.  But it is also more than this; it is a thesis for independent and critical thinking, and a reassurance that a meaningful and moral life can be found within (and perhaps could be a logical consequence of) a naturalist state of mind.

The book begins with the cosmos, which seems like a fairly intimidating place to start, given its size and complexity, but is in fact a gentle introduction to the tone and style of the rest of the book.  It takes us through the fundamental nature of reality, where Carroll shows how ontology affects observation. This leads neatly to a definition of what Carroll calls “Poetic Naturalism”.  From here causality and the arrow of time are defined and explained, not only in terms of the words we use to describe them, but also in terms of physics, particularly at a quantum level.  This is an important foundation to build as it leads to an explanation of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, which together explain both memories and causes, and thus how human beings experience space-time.

From this foundation, the book progresses to a section entitled “Understanding”.  This explores the different ontologies we employ in order to make judgements about information and form opinions about the things we believe to be true.  Carroll presents a number of ontologies, followed by analyses of their virtues and disadvantages.  The tone of analysis is logical and evenly weighted, ultimately leading to a conclusion that the Bayesian approach is the most even-handed.

The Essence section explores what we know about the universe, explains the quantum realm and how to interpret it.  A definition of the Core Theory is the presented, from which Carroll describes what we are made of, what the world is made of, and why the universe exists.  From this deep physics, he then discusses scientific understanding of the body and soul, and death.

Complexity explains the intricacy of the universe as an inevitable outcome of the laws of physics.  Entropy, the force which takes the universe from a state of order through a gradual decline into disorder, is described using the example of cream being mixed into coffee.  This lovely visual example shows how as an extremely organised state of particles (the cream sat on top of the coffee) is subjected to entropy (stick a spoon in and give it a quick stir) the coffee particles and cream particles become arranged in a complex and beautiful way before the process completes and the cream particles are evenly distributed within the coffee particles.  From here it explains how the universe as we currently observe it, in all its wonderful complexity and harbouring of life, is a natural state to find ourselves in as our universe transitions from extreme order into disorder.  You can probably tell – this was my favourite section of the book.

Part five explores consciousness, and the enigmatic structures that are our brains.  This naturally progresses into a discussion of artificial intelligence, and explores the question “could a computer become conscious?” and “how does consciousness arise?”  Carroll doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but does clearly explain what science knows so far, where the gaps are, and what can reasonably be inferred until further scientific knowledge is gained.  In seeking to address the questions surrounding consciousness, Carroll acknowledges that ultimately we are all built from inanimate particles, and postulates on various trains of thought that might prove useful directions of enquiry.

The final section moves away from physics, and sits itself firmly in the realms of philosophy.  Carroll asks how we can find meaning in our lives while existing in a universe that keeps moving without apparent regard for our existence.  He gives his views on spiritualism, and how those who prefer to live by a naturalist ontology can find meaning and fulfilment.  This leads to a discussion of the various incarnations of the Ten Commandments, and Carroll’s offering of the Ten Considerations.  With these in mind, he seems to suggest, we can find both personal fulfilment and make the world a better place.

The physics in this book is fascinating.  I enjoy reading popular science books for the joy of being introduced to new concepts. The Big Picture covered a lot of concepts I had read in other books, but shed new light on them, showing the consequences of those concepts on the world we observe.

It was heavy reading, requiring a lot of focus in order to keep track of the sheer volume of information and to fully understand each argument and concept.  In a month where my reading time has been fragmented and brief, keeping up with this book was hard work.  It definitely requires a time commitment, and I think would be more easily read over a shorter time span.  It is an intriguing read, and has left me with plenty to think about.