Microbiology: Four References and a Fiction

I recently had a post on Small Things Considered, a blog from The American Society for Microbiology that combined reviews of four recent nonfiction books that I’ve read, and one fiction, featuring microbiology. Many of these could be of interest even to general readers with scientific curiosity.

6a00d8341c5e1453ef01b7c774ece8970b-800wiConfronting Contagion: Our Evolving Understanding of Disease
By Melvin Santer
Oxford University Press – 2nd October 2014
ISBN 9780199356355 – 384 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


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To Catch a Virus
By John Booss and Marilyn J. August
ASM Press – 25th March 2013
ISBN 9781555815073 – 364 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Publisher


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Scientific Integrity, 4th Edition
By Francis L. Macrina
ASM Press – 23rd July 2014
ISBN 9781555816612 – 530 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


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Principles of Microbial Diversity
By James W. Brown
ASM Press – 23rd July 2014
ISBN 9781555814427 – 416 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


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Petroplague
By Amy Rogers
AuthorHouse – 27th October 2011
ISBN 9781467038270 – 336 Pages – Paperback
Source: Author, via Small Things Considered


You can find short reviews on all of the above in my original post found here on Small Things Considered.

Disclaimer: I received advanced reading copies of these books from the publishers in exchange for honest reviews.

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.

The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00FUZQY7I
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Literary novels can get away with lacking an exciting plot when they are filled with profound insights or inspiring artistic language that like poetry conveys complex emotions and relationships. Genre novels can get away with the opposite, being completely plot-driven, large-scale, ‘simple’ entertainment, even if formulaic. I become most impressed by the authors, or specific works, that are able to pull off the best of both worlds. That kind of mashup is a risky endeavor though, for sometimes it can come out where neither side really comes out well in the product, and that unfortunately is the case overall with “The Word Exchange”.

The premise of the novel is wonderful, and lovers of books, languages, and the power of words will appreciate at the very least the foundations of the novel. The early chapters are dominated more by the literary side of the equation. While the writing is good throughout the novel, it is probably best here Although it verges on gimmicky with the advanced vocabulary-laden prose, that doesn’t feel like a major fault until it gives way to being replaced by fake words for the remainder of the novel. The trick gets old fast, making the advanced real words sometimes overlap in one’s mind as an elemental tool with the fake ones to come. Graedon writes well, but only rarely does it seem profound or elegant. Rather than words being carefully chosen to fit the flow and of the sentence, they are instead chosen to fit the style, or theme moreso, of the novel’s plot. An early chapter from the point of view of secondary character Bart is the most vocabulary-heavy, but it is also this chapter out of the whole novel that contains the deepest musings on the theme of language, delving into philosophy and other intellectually stimulating backgrounds. But for the literary richness of character relationships, nothing is quite achieved.

Instead, the novel seems to delve further and further into being genre, a combination of a mystery (what happened to Ana’s father) and a near-future techno-thriller. OK, so can the novel at least just then be simply enjoyed as genre entertainment? Sadly, the novel doesn’t quite get this right either, though again it does have some things in its favor. The technology of the ‘Memes’ work wonderfully and believably within the novel, a horror that is easily imaginable. The increasing reliance and emotional dependence on mobile connected technology is highly disturbing, much as it was to Ellul who I happen to be reading now too. But, rather than focusing just on these Memes and the technologies direct effects, Graedon creates this incomprehensible scenario where the technology is somehow exerting effects as a biological virus. How exactly this occurs is explained eventually in the novel, yet even then did not make particular logical, biological sense. Handled in other science fiction outlets, here this idea of a language or word virus, simply doesn’t work as believable science fiction.

That could be okay, I am fine with suspended disbelief even in SF. Yet even still, the actual entertainment of the story line and the reader’s engagement with it, sort of plods along. A good third of the novel could be taken out and with some edits to make the deletion seamless, I don’t think the story would be any worse, but in fact better. The plot drags along as the protagonist Ana slowly comes to realize what is going on and where her father may be (and as she proceeds to ignore every bit of advice/warning given to her, thereby prolonging the moment of realizations). The outbreak of the ‘virus’ similarly limps along until sudden chaos erupts in the final portion of the novel.

Filled with lots of wonderful pieces (I loved the retro feel of the Luddite-type society and the use of the pneumatic message tubes), the sum total of “The Word Exchange” somehow fails. In a way the whole of the novel is somehow symbolic of many of the sentences found within it (due to the word virus): phrases of lucidity but lots of meaningless contrafibulations interspersed throughout the crotix that end up making the message of the yozil fail to manifest or grok. Never quite reaching impressive literary feats, but also failing to be more than the average genre novel, the whole feels unremarkable. However, this isn’t a terrible book either. If you are really enticed by books, language, etc, and the description speaks to you, this could be well worth your time. But if you are picky and want something special, this may not be it. Ultimately if you do give it a read, trust your impressions after the first few chapters.

Two-and-a-Half 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