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.

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

Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, by Randy Olson

19419200Don’t Be Such a Scientist:
Talking Substance in an Age of Style
, by Randy Olson
Publisher: Island Press
AISN: B0057QCSL6
216 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2009
Source: NetGalley

The original Star Trek and its reboot delighted in the contrast between the stoic, logical Spock and passionate, instinct-driven Kirk or McCoy. Not long before that, over fifty years ago, C.P. Snow gave his famous lecture on “The Two Cultures” and the divisions between Science and the Arts, providing voice to sentiments that existed long before then. So, the topics of Olson’s book aren’t exactly new. But they are still necessary. Graduate schools continue training scientists to ideally immerse themselves completely into a scientific framework, devoting themselves to their research in the lab and thoughts about their research out of their lab. Little to no emphasis is put on education or communication. Sure, one learns communication of results to fellow scientists, but not to the general public, a completely different beast.

Olson’s book seeks to point out this issue and encourage scientists to pay greater attention to communicating to the world at large. In a series of four parts he waxes on how scientists should not act (too cerebral, too literal-minded, bad storytellers, and too unlikeable), and then closes with a fifth chapter encouraging scientists to take an active role in culture, not unlike Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. The short book is a quick read, and probably could even stand to be shorter for the amount of ideas it conveys. Olson writes very informally, injecting humor throughout. At times that humor works, but at many points it seemed awkwardly forced or inappropriately off-color.

Olson’s major points are that the world is increasingly style-ridden. People aren’t convinced by facts, but by the show. Style has become the new substance. While trying to reverse this and encourage rational, logical thought is important, people are never all going to become ideal scientists, we aren’t Vulcan. Nor should we be. The skills needed for ideal science are not the skills needed for human relationships or communication with the general public. Olson does a very good job convincing the reader of this, but doesn’t offer much in the way forward other than a general directive that scientists need to realize this and adapt or implement public-engaging considerations, as they are most naturally fit.

I find it interesting that what Science communication comes down to is Evangelism, the similarities to religious communication are numerous. Both cases are attempts to translate an understanding of truth to the general public, a public that may be unfamiliar with these understood truths and ignorant about how these are arrived at. Some may argue that science is ‘rational’ and thus ‘truth’, while religion is the reverse, but that is unimportant here. In both case those wanting to convey the information believe they have some sort of truth and want to spread that truth to an audience that at some level may be hostile and skeptical. When scientists act too cerebral, literal-minded, superior, and spout off facts with no story, this is basically the exact same thing as a piss-poor Evangelist who acts too emotional and illogically, reading their Bible as literally and senselessly as possible, an air of moral superiority, and spouting off Bible verses and condemnations.

In that sense, Olson’s arguments in a larger context are more universally applicable on how humans should act to try and communicate anything they have strong opinions about to the general public. Olson bases his recommendations for the infusion of style into the substance of science with stories from his experiences in Hollywood. At times these asides or examples are useful and appropriate, but often they also appear to primarily (or at least equally) be present to promote his own productions and career. Doubtless, these are examples he is most familiar with, and given his scientist/Hollywood background his examples also involve science. Still, it felt self-serving at points and extraneous.

I think more and more younger scientists are aware of the problems in the system of training scientists to be better communicators. But with employment and advancement having NO ties to these factors at all, it is hard to change. One most go above and beyond normal efforts, with no compensation in sight, to teach oneself to be a better communicator of science. And, as Olson points out, risk disdain or jealousy for having done so. Without a change in professional recognition and the demise of scientists who seem to think we should all be like Vulcans devoted in our entire being to science, I can’t see what will change. Olson doesn’t touch on this professional issue much at all other than acknowledging it vaguely exists. Thus, this book may be a good reminder to scientists who already realize the problem, or may further open one’s eyes to the issue, but I’m not sure what audience will be reached beyond that or what change it can affect beyond a preaching to the choir.

Three 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

Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Peter C. Doherty

19170663Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Peter C. Doherty
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780199986781
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

Nobel Prize winning immunologist and veterinary surgeon Doherty writes a comprehensive and succinct review of things involving disease pandemics: what pandemics are, which have occurred, which may likely occur, and what governments and individuals are doing/can do to combat them. To form a foundation for the reader Doherty first gives a quick primer on molecular biology, viruses/bacteria, and immunology basics. He then delves into discussing the major pandemic threat of influenza before moving onto others, like HIV.

What impressed me about this volume is that it is written in a particularly laid-back fashion – almost stream-of-consciousness at points, obviously geared towards the layman with only a bit of background in microbiology. As part of Oxford University Press’ “What Everyone Needs to Know” series the book is organized as a series of question/answers to apparently aid in the comfort of this being a book for the general audience.

The downsides to the book stem from this organization, I think. Many of the questions posed are quite simple, like asking what the difference is between a virus and a bacteria. But the ‘answer’ portion goes far beyond addressing that – into myriad other topics not directly related. It therefore ends up feeling like one is reading something from a political debate, where the question is used to spring off into whatever topic or aside seems to come to mind. This ends up making portions of the book – particularly the first chapters appear rather unorganized to me.

In a few spots the scientific detail or issues raised appear to go beyond what I would deem really necessary (such as the PCR descriptions), but this was a rare occurrence. The densest scientific details can be lost on some readers without the overall important messages of the book getting lost. In the end if you are unfamiliar with what pandemics are, if you can’t explain what immunizations are and why we should get them, if you don’t know what the differences are between viruses and bacteria (and their treatments), then you should read this and learn some really essential information that is not only important for yourself but could be important for your responsibility in sharing this planet with other humans.

Four Stars out of Five