DISCOVERING TUBERCULOSIS, by Christian W. McMillen

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Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History, 1900 to Present
By Christian W. McMillen
Yale University Press – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780300190298 – 352 Pages – Hardback
Source: NetGalley


For now, just a short posting review of this, as I will be writing a more complete review soon for incorporation into a Small Things Considered piece on the topic of current tuberculosis vaccine research, addressing some of the science behind what this book addresses from a primarily historical perspective.
While the author of this is a historian and the realm of history is the primary focus of this book, it obviously contains some medical and scientific details. But it should be easily accessible for any lay reader. As a microbiologist familiar more with the bacteria than the disease and its treatment history I found a lot in this that I hadn’t been aware of, particularly in the earlier periods when Tb was frequently thought to be more easily contracted by non-white groups of people, such as the American Indians.
The book covers these early views steeped in racism and colonialism through the data that argued against such interpretations. It then covers the development of the Tb vaccine and consistent questions/uncertainties of its effectiveness. Finally the book covers the more modern – but at this point hardly new – threat of Tb infection in the face of HIV. Throughout, McMillen addresses the question of why Tb continues to be a scourge despite a century of global health efforts.
Overall McMillen provides a good historical coverage of the topic. At times I was annoyed at repetitiveness in the text, and I would have appreciated both more coverage of  future prospects for Tb vaccines, and more of a scientific discussion of the issues behind this whole history in general. I would recommend this for a general audience with interest in history, medicine, and/or global humanitarian health efforts. I will post a link to what I write for Small Things Considered after its publication.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats, by Sandra Markle

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery,
by Sandra Markle
Publisher: Millbrook Press
ISBN: 1467714631
48 pages, Hardcover
Published: 1st Sep. 2014
Source: NetGalley

 With bat decorations just around the corner for Halloween, now is a perfect time to check out this wonderful nonfiction science book with any curious young scientists in your life.
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats is about the recent fungal infections (white-nose syndrome) that has decimated brown bat populations in North America.
As a biologist and bat lover myself, I appreciated the way that Markle told this scientific story of epidemiology in an engaging way that can introduce children to diverse concepts: the wonders of nature, the effects of the microbial world on larger familiar organisms, the process of scientific investigation, the power of curiosity and creativity, and the importance and benefit of research.
Markle relates these rather complex ideas with straightforward language that is ideal for a middle school (or even late elementary) aged child, all in the format of a ‘scientific mystery’: the observation that something is wrong with bats and the steps that were taken to try and discover what was causing the problem. Only then, with dedicated research and understanding can the problem be addressed, a mystery must be solved.
Apparently this book is part of an entire series, so I’ll have to look into the other titles offered. Although I could only look at this on a Kindle, the photos and illustrations are plentiful, bright, and well-done. I should note that given the topic of a deadly disease of bats, there are illustrations that may be considered ‘gross’ or ‘uncomfortable’. I appreciate the honesty that the text and photos show in just how awfully devastating disease can be for any organism and the price that must be paid to try and determine its cause and treat it. I also really appreciated the realistic images of scientists just simply doing their work in the lab, the latest equipment at hand.
This book is really a great opportunity to expose a child to the wonder of nature and the appeal of science. It makes complex, and perhaps even frightening realities accessible to children and may help inspire curiosity or dreams in a future scientific researcher.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives—and Our Lives Change Our Genes, by Sharon Moalem

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives – and Our Lives Change Our Genes, by Sharon Moalem
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 1455549444
272 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This popular science book is a broad overview of genetic and epigenetic inheritance, basically exactly what the subtitle says. The introduction oversells the epigenetic focus (how life experience or environment can lead the changes in DNA that are not strictly sequence-based) because the majority of the book does stay within the realms of traditional sequence-based inherited genetic variation. Moreover, given Moalem’s specialty, the focus is not so much on inheritance itself, nor even the specific mechanisms of inheritance.

Instead this book really comes down to these ideas: 1) There are a lot of genetic disorders. 2) Individually these disorders are often rare. 3) It is fairly likely that any given individual though will have some kind of disorder. In other words, everyone is unique; most of us have unique rare disorders of some severity or another. The truth of this may surprise some, as may the implications: namely that any health advisories are tailored for the ‘average population’. But no one is average. So not everyone can take the same amounts of medication. Eating high amounts of fat may be great for some people. Eating any fruits may be really bad for someone else. Running is good exercise for your spouse, it might give you a heart-attack, etc.

“Inheritance” thereby sweeps across a wide realm of human genetic variation, threading topics together under common themes. Moalem avoids getting bogged down into a lot of detail, making this book of greatest interest to the general public with medical interests, or those in particular who find medical anomalies interesting. For those that are really ignorant just how much variation there is to life, and how easily life can go wrong, this book is an excellent primer, and even for those with a background in medicine or biology, many of the specific rare disorders in the book that Moalem discusses may be new to them.

Personally I wish that given the title he had delved a little more in-depth, particularly into the mechanisms of inheritance, and variations across life. The book is squarely human- (or at least mammalian-) centric. Moalem’s style is very light-hearted, at times veering into stories whose connections to the actual topic at hand aren’t apparent, but for its intended audience, I find the style appropriate. Finally, I appreciated him bringing up discussion on how studies of genetic disorders allow us to have a firmer grasp of how ‘normal’ biology occurs.

An episode of the X-Files I adore, “Humbug” addresses several of the issues covered in “Inheritance”, including the speculative ones regarding the increasing genetic technologies available to our society. At what point will we be able to eradicate all genetic disorders? What understanding will we lose in the process? How do we decide what is a serious enough disorder? Though briefly touched upon, the book could have spent more space covering the implications of our increasing knowledge and technological powers.

Four Stars out of Five

John Snow, by Jack Challoner

John Snow, by Jack Challoner
Publisher: A&C Black (Bloomsbury)
ISBN: 1408178400
112 pages, paperback
Published March 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This short biography covers the work of doctor John Snow in investigating outbreaks of cholera in England, a key event in the development of the science of epidemiology, tracing an illness back to its source and ultimate cause. Although Snow was no microbiologist, and it fell to Koch to eventually clearly identify the bacteria Vibrio cholera as the causative agent of the disease, Snow’s work laid the foundations for establishing a way to control cholera, namely to focus on water supplies rather than the prevailing view of the time, ‘bad air’.

Challoner, an established writer of communicating science to a lay audience, particularly youth, writes this geared for older children and young adults, but for those unfamiliar with Snow’s work and epidemiology, it would be quick, highly readable primer on the topic. Challoner focuses on the cholera-related work of Snow, rather than writing an all-encompassing birth-to-death biography, though he does discuss tangentially Snow’s role as physician and pioneering anesthesiologist.

Despite focusing on this history of science and medicine, Challoner relates the story with descriptive warmth, including small details of everyday life at the time (mid-late 1800s) and conversationally, anecdotally through the thoughts of Snow and those he comes in contact with in his endeavors. Though fabricated in that retelling, the facts behind the story, the history, remain solidly accurate to my eye.

Beyond introducing Snow’s accomplishments, this book in general outlines the scientific process of mystery, curiosity, research, refinement, and ultimate success, but with more work for others to carry on. In this sense it is a good general introduction of children to science in general.

The only drawback to the book relates to who the audience may actually be. With text alone, it tends towards the dry and detail-laden, including some medical/scientific vocabulary, despite being related in a straight-forward way, more relatable perhaps to an adult. Yet, it is written in a short and succinct manner with phrases interspersed in the detail that seem geared towards the young. It thus seems most appropriate for a teen with a keen interest in science or medicine, or as a fine source for some school project or paper.

Four Stars out of Five

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford

Virus Hunt: The Search for the Origin of HIV, by Dorothy H. Crawford
Publisher: Oxford University Press
AISN: B00CXOU16Y
224 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Other books, such as “And the Band Played On” have well-covered the story of HIV and AIDS breaking into public consciousness throughout the world in the early 1980s, its social and political effects, and the response of the medical and scientific community. Here, however, the focus is on the actual appearance of HIV in the world – long before we humans were aware of its existence. Where in Africa did HIV come from? When did it first arise to infect humans? How did it get from a virus that infects monkeys and apes to one that infects humans? I have even heard people ask, “If HIV is gotten through sex, then that means someone must have had sex with a monkey at some point!” Well, this is untrue, so if you ever thought something like this, then please please do read this book. These are the questions addressed by Crawford, and their answers have ramifications both for how AIDS seemed to suddenly spring out of nowhere into our human lives and for how we should consider future viral pandemics.

The answers to those questions take the reader through chapters that blend medicine, science, ecology, evolution, and the sociopolitical history of West-Central Africa. Unless you are already an expert on the latest scientific findings on the origin of the HIV, you will probably learn a great deal that is new. The book begins by briefly introducing and dispelling one of several misconceptions or ‘mis-informations’ about AIDS, namely the erroneous assertion that AIDS is not caused by HIV. Crawford then introduces the topic of related viruses that infect are evolutionary relatives (the simian immunodeficiency viruses or SIVs) and begins to set the stage for explaining how we know where AIDS generally comes from. She then focuses in with each chapter to address more specific matters that recent scientific experiments have brought to light, such as what kind of ape the different types of HIV variants came from, down to the specific area and people who were likely the first infected back around the early 1900s, approximately. The book concludes with a molecular discussion of HIV and how that relates to its origins and dissemination and a final discussion on the nature of viral pandemics in general, with future prospects considered.

The copy I read is an unfinished proof, and I assume misprints will be caught and changed. However, the start of the book in particular was hard to get into due to some very awkward sentence structures and several sentences that were vague or grammatically problematic. Beyond the first chapter this issue went away, and it may not even be a problem in the final product.

Crawford knows the material, and she does a fine job of distinctly conveying information that we know as scientific fact from that which leads to educated guesses or downright conjecture. However, her familiarity with the material may also be an impediment for the general reader who does not have any prior knowledge of virology or HIV. Many concepts are discussed in bits throughout the book, only being completely explained later, and many of the more scientific sections can be daunting and dry to read for a nonspecialist (such as the myriad SIV and HIV variants and subtle – though important – differences). Her writing becomes far less technical and more ‘natural’ sounding when she discusses matters outside of direct virology, such as history or anecdotes.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in HIV or those curious to learn just how a virus can go from being in a population of non-human primates for centuries, only to cross suddenly into the human population with devastating consequences decades later. If you are concerned if just such an event could happen again then there could be no better volume to read, despite its detailed technical portions.

Four Stars out of Five

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard
Publisher: Little, Brown, & Company
ISBN: 0316182907
336 pages, hardcover
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Since I was young I have loved the night sky, gazing up at the lovely stars. Years later when I had the opportunity to be outside in a small village and the Bush of Botswana, I realized that until then I had never seen true night. Not only were these stars of the Southern Hemisphere different, but there were so many more. I was bathed in their glow and I found that I could even see the Milky Way, something that prior I had never comprehended. Yet even then, there in the heart of Africa, light pollution was evident, blazing along the horizon from distant mining industry.

The End of the Night talks about light pollution, about how most people are born, live, and die without ever experiencing an actual night, actual darkness, free of artificial light. I was aware of the effects of modern electric light on star-gazing, and even a bit on its adverse health effects, but Bogard takes the story far beyond these issues alone to shed light into all aspects of darkness, literal and even figurative.

Bogard writes both well and passionately, suffusing the text with a glow of caring and hope, even amid factoids that can be downright depressing regarding how ubiquitous and how horrible our way of artificially lighting our lives is done. The book is about light as much as it is about darkness, starting at one of the brightest spots on Earth, Las Vegas, and slowly counting down chapter numbers, dimming the focus on light and raising the focus on dark to the final reflections in quiet blackness.

After the initial astronomical discussions, Bogard turns to examining how two large European cities, London and Paris of course, have utilized light in different ways, with very different effects. He addresses the issue that most lighting we use is too strong and too wasteful, both economically and energetically. He discusses findings that demonstrate that all this light we clamor for in fear, all in the name of ‘safety’, actually has the opposite effect.

The most interesting chapter occurs halfway through the book with exploration of light and darkness in the metaphorical sense, and the psychological needs we humans have for darkness and for both sides of related things characterized so dualistically. Another chapter focusing on what people can do to change how we misuse light and foolishly banish darkness completes the tour of this book, leaving the last chapters almost like an epilogue, finding bits of darkness still close to home, and hope that it will still exist in the future, perhaps even return to our daily lives.

Riding the bus while reading this I noticed all the lights blaring inside, lights still on outside in parking lots, lights shining from cars…all while the Houston sun blazed down. This book opens your eyes to the lights that blind us. I’d recommend it to all to read.

Five Stars out of Five