ONE FOR THE BOOKS: Blinded by Science?

By Mary Louise Ruehr Published:

Many of us eschew books about science, probably assuming that the material will be dry or hard to understand. Too bad; we’re missing out on some fascinating and even fun reading.

“The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People” by Neil Shubin provides an overview of the interrelationship of plants, animals and the planet. Shubin points out that “Within each of us lie some of the most profound stories of all,” including the history of the universe.

He talks about the big bang and basic physics — no, don’t be afraid; this is great reading — he writes that some of the elements that make up our bodies come from supernovae, the explosions of stars: We are in fact made of star stuff.

Shubin discusses how our neighboring planets were formed, sunlight and time, water — “the ideal medium in which to dissolve a large variety of substances ... on which life depends” — continental drift, global catastrophes, and even the phenomenon of “multiples,” in which “many great ideas seem to come to different people at about the same time.”

It’s very reader-friendly. Shubin’s overview of science is sprinkled with examples and reminds me of TV’s Mr. Wizard.

“The Kingdom of Rarities” by Eric Dinerstein moves into the realm of biology, shedding light on the rarest species of plants and animals on Earth. The author defines rarities mostly as “those species whose entire global range is limited to one population at a single site.” Thus, rarity can be the precursor to extinction, should a catastrophe occur at that site to wipe them out. (Conversely, if we can preserve the site, maybe we can save the species.)

The author goes on expeditions to remote areas of the world, looking for rare fauna and flora in jungles, rain forests, islands and rivers, sometimes traveling by elephant, sometimes to where no human had ever been before. He searches for the causes of rarity — such as poaching, overhunting, habitat loss, inbreeding and invasive species — by studying birds, large cats, fish, monkeys, rhinos, giant anteaters, langurs and many more creatures.

Dinerstein discusses conservation biology and the paradox of accessibility: “If upland forests were more open to biologists, we might know more about rarity and abundance for all the vertebrates, yet if they were more reachable, the vertebrates would likely be gone.”

With maps and illustrations, the book reads partly like a textbook, partly as a memoir of an enthusiast, and partly as a travelogue: “By nine o’clock, the lid of fog covering the Chitwan Valley would have burned off and the sun would peek through the silk cotton trees. Then the hunt would begin.” The book would be of interest to botanists, zoologists, biologists and also geographers, as well as anyone interested in keeping our favorite species from extinction.

If you haven’t yet read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, please add it to your to-read list. Skloot, a science journalist, has created an important book, not only for science, but for American history.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American who grew up in the 1920s in Virginia, where she lived in a log cabin that was once a slave quarters. In 1951, when she was treated for cancer, the doctor took a biopsy of her cells. Most cells die quickly outside the body, but Henrietta’s cancer cells “were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal cells ever grown in a laboratory.”

Growing and distributing the “HeLa” cells became a multibillion-dollar industry. Her cells were used in gene research and were used to develop drugs to treat a host of diseases and conditions, including polio. Her “cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse,” writes Skloot. But they were also used in outrageous ways, injected into people and fused with the cells of animals.

The Lacks family was angry. Her children did not know her cells were being used until decades after her death, and they felt “that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”

The book is so wonderfully written, it’s simply a joy to read. It has something for everyone — science and medicine, American history, social and cultural history, biography, family drama, scientific detective work, and even a mystery surrounding the fate of one of her daughters. Henrietta’s case raises questions of science, ethics, law, race, class and even religion.

Born the descendant of slaves and buried in an unmarked grave, Henrietta Lacks changed medical history.

Finally, how about a little controversy? In “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” authors Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum look at how politics and our culture have made science not just unpopular, but even anathema. They write that the United States is “home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles” such as evolution, childhood vaccinations and global warming.

Science, they write, is marginalized in the political arena. Politicians fear looking like an “egghead” by talking about science, and “few elected officials really understand or appreciate its centrality to decision making and governance. Too many politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, fail to see the underlying role of science in most of the issues they address, even though it is nearly always present.”

It isn’t that people hate science; they’re just “too uninvolved” with it, too busy with other things — and the news media don’t cover it nearly as much as crime, sports, entertainment, etc. Some scientists even appear to be arrogant, unable or unwilling to explain their work or even deal with politicians or the voters. And Hollywood hasn’t helped, since its version of science bears little resemblance to reality.

The authors write that physicists were treated like “superstars” after World War II and were again popular during the space race of the 1950s and ’60s. But in the ’70s, the Religious Right questioned the role of science in public policy, choosing to insert faith-based principles in its place.

Agree or disagree, the authors present some interesting ideas to ponder.

Copyright © 2013 by Mary Louise Ruehr.

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