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Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed. I’m listing them here in alphabetical order by the fields’ names. Each is linked to my review. (If a link comes up short, just go to www.malwarwickonbooks.com and search for the title.)
Animal Husbandry: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
Astronomy: Beyond: Our Future in Space, by Chris Impey
Atmospheric Science: Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, by Sam Kean
Gastroenterology: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach
General Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
Medical Research: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Military Science: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach
Personality Psychology: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
Less than three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang.
Christian enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields. Incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History, Christian summed up what is known about the birth of the universe, the emergence of stars, the formation of the Earth, the turbulent formation and shifting of the continents, and the painfully slow advent of the most primitive, single-celled life. From this perspective, the several million years since humans first emerged, much less the 5,000 years of recorded history, must be seen as only the latest and briefest chapter in a story that will continue for billions of years longer.
Since Christian’s inspired initiative, others have flocked to the new discipline. A body of Big History literature has begun to emerge. The best-known contribution to the new discipline is Jared Diamond’s bestselling book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. But others have made notable contributions as well, adding insight and perspective to our understanding of our place in the universe.
Below I’ve listed eight books I’ve read and reviewed in my own venture into Big History. Not all span the life of the universe. But they all survey world history with the broad strokes that characterize this fresh approach to understanding how the past affects today’s world. They’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, and all are linked to my reviews. I recommend them all. I also recommend the 48-lecture course David Christian recorded for The Great Courses. It’s titled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. This is world history as it should be taught.
The geologist who explained to us how the dinosaurs went extinct ventures outside his academic bailiwick to track the story of the Earth from its earliest antecedents in the Big Bang to the emergence of homo sapiens as the dominant form of life on the planet. Emphasizing geological events throughout, he illustrates how radical changes in the natural environment have shaped the course of human events—and the very nature of our bodies themselves.
While David Christian leaned on colleagues in the sciences to carry the story for its first 13.65 billion years, Cynthia Stokes Brown took it all on herself. With a good deal of simplification but relatively few obvious errors, she surveys the prehistorical past with great skill. For anyone who thinks history is the story of wars and generals and presidents, Big History is a worthy remedy.
It’s easy to get the impression that science has answered all the big questions and is spending more and more time and money focusing on the little ones. Read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and you will quickly be disabused of that illusion. Truth to tell, the human race is still abysmally ignorant of some of the most fundamental matters that determine how, why, and where we live.
Published 20 years ago, Diamond’s thesis is the only persuasive argument I’ve ever encountered for the huge wealth gap between the “West” and the “developing” nations of the Global South. He finds the roots of the problem in the history of the last 13,000 years. This is one of the most important books of the last half-century.
Harari sees history as divided by three broad-brush “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens acquired the gift of speech and began to walk out of Africa; the Agricultural Revolution, which began around 10,000 years ago and ushered in a new world of towns, cities, empires, and a fast-growing human population; and the Scientific Revolution, only about 500 years old, which has shaped the world as we know it today. Big History, indeed.
Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492—and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong. Latter-day investigations in all these fields have turned up persuasive evidence that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.
Chances are, you’re aware that the potato originated in Peru and smallpox in Africa, and that both species crossed the Atlantic shortly after Columbus. You probably know, too, that the potato later became a staple in many European countries and that smallpox decimated the native population of the Americas. However, what you may not know is how profound was the impact on the course of history of the much more extensive exchange of animals, plants, minerals, and microorganisms from the Old World to and from the New. Historians call this phenomenon the Columbian Exchange. From the perspective of Big History, this event was one of the most significant phenomena of the last 13,000 years.
Five years after Jared Diamond’s path-breaking book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, historian and archeologist Ian Morris laid out his own, more comprehensive view of the course of human history, reaching back 15,000 years and venturing into the 22nd Century. While many historians still engaged in the stale debate about whether “Great Men” or social forces are dominant in world history, Diamond and Morris convincingly laid out the case for the greater influence of the larger context in which human history takes place, delving into biology, sociology, and archaeology as well as history itself.
I’d already written up my list of the 10 best books of the year when the editors of Berkeleyside asked me to supply them with a list of my five top picks. (I’ll post the longer list next week.) Picking just five is a tough assignment, to put it mildly. But here goes, gritting my teeth all the way. All these books were published in 2016 or late in 2015.
In a searing exploration of the history of slavery, an African-born American woman traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States.
A British historian’s revisionist view of military intelligence in World War II, debunking the many myths that have inspired dozens of books and taking their exaggerations down a peg with a long-lacking sense of perspective. In short, Hastings demonstrates that virtually all human intelligence (“humint”) was useless.
A Vietnamese-American won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this complex novel of the Vietnam War, viewing the conflict from those who took part both in the South and the North. It’s a perspective unfamiliar to most of us and could only have been written by a Vietnamese-American. The book is crammed with insight, and it’s beautifully written.
A science journalist traces the history of autism throughout the twentieth century, when it first became the subject of close study. It’s a fascinating story of myths and misunderstandings long held both among psychiatrists and the public. The psychiatric profession does not come off well in this telling.
A veteran investigative journalist explores the time in the 1950s and 60s when the CIA ran amok, assassinating foreign leaders and intervening in the affairs of other countries in the belief that the USSR was bent on world domination. The focus is on the legendary CIA Director, Allen Dulles. You won’t think more highly of him if you read this book.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
UC Berkeley professor Walter Alvarez tackles the emerging field of Big History from his perspective as a geologist, viewing himself as “a historian of the Earth.” In A Most Improbable Journey, he writes about the universal context in which human life has emerged.
Beginning with the Big Bang and rushing through the intervening 13.8 billion years at top speed, he focuses on the geological processes through which the Earth was formed and progressively re-formed in ways that have determined the course of human events to this day.
“The topography and climate of continents,” he writes, have controlled the pattern of settlement and the lines of communication throughout history; resources are distributed in an irregular way across the continents; and land warfare is carried out on a geographical chessboard. The geography of the oceans has determined routes of exploration, trade, and migration and has set the stage for naval warfare.”
And all this, he emphasizes, is the result of the particular configuration of the continents at this moment in geological history. Because of continental drift, the shape and distribution of both land and sea have radically changed numerous times since the Earth was created 4.5 billion years ago. For example, to cite just two minor examples of the Earth’s changeability, he notes that “California is further away from Utah than it used to be.” And the coast of Northern California once extended to what we know today as the Farallones Islands. If your taste runs to nonfiction, you may well find this book as enjoyable as the best thriller.
The discipline of Big History is less than three decades old. Founded by David Christian, an American historian then teaching in Australia, its mission is to transcend the boundaries of written history and help us see ourselves in the context of an inconceivably vast and complex universe. Instead of focusing on the mere 5,000 years of recorded history, Big Historians typically direct our attention far backwards to the beginning of time itself. However, in most treatments, Big History explores the astronomical, physical, chemical, and geological realities of our past only as prologue to an abbreviated world history. Walter Alvarez takes a different approach in A Most Improbable Journey. Though he frequently dips into other scientific disciplines, his focus throughout is on the ways in which geological science can help us understand the shape our lives and the character of the planet we share.
In his short and highly readable book, Alvarez frames the story of the ascension of the human species as an accident. “At innumerable moments . . .,” he writes, “history could have taken different paths than the one our world actually did take, resulting in a human situation different from the one we have today—or possibly no human situation at all!” He emphasizes that “the human situation is balanced on a knife edge of improbability.” This is the principal theme of his book. Again and again, Alvarez returns to this point. Writing about the improbable evolution of our bodies, he asks, “What if bilateral symmetry had never appeared? What if the movable jaw had not evolved? What if the dinosaurs had not been killed off? What if other biological inventions we can barely imagine had shaped the path of evolution? As with so much else in Big History, it was a very particular and unlikely sequence of events that gave us the characteristics of our human bodies.”
Alvarez bookends his account with references to the theory that has put him on the map, so to speak: the hypothesis that the crash-landing of a meteor or comet in the Yucatan Peninsula caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and the rise of mammals to supremacy on the Earth. The improbability of this event—unlike anything in the previous half-billion years—reinforces his thesis that the emergence of our species is due to a long sequence of highly unlikely occurrences. Although Alvarez dips into geological jargon from time to time and offers more about the history of geological science than any lay reader might wish to know, A Most Improbable Journey is nonetheless entertaining. No doubt the book closely parallels the popular course in Big History he teaches at UC Berkeley. My only complaint is Alvarez’ unaccountable love for unnecessary emphasis. Surely, it’s not necessary to punctuate nearly every interesting observation with an exclamation mark! The frequency of this aberrant punctuation is annoying.
Walter Alvarez is a professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of California, Berkeley. A geologist, he is best known for the hypothesis that a meteor impact on the coast of Yucatan 66 million years ago led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, which he developed with his father. The father, Luis Walter Alvarez, was an experimental physicist who paved the way for the discovery of whole new families of subatomic particles, work for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
You might also take a look at my post, 8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history. This book is included among the eight.
One of the very best ways to gain insight into history and the ways of the world around us is to read biographies. Which explains why I read them so frequently. Over the more than six years since I began writing this blog, I’ve read dozens. Here I’m listing 27 that stand out in my mind.
The 27 books below are arranged in no particularly order. You’ll see, too, that they cover a lot of territory. However, apart from Stacy Schiff’s biography of Queen Cleopatra and Robert Massie’s celebrated work on Catherine the Great, they’re all set in the 19th and 20th centuries. I occasionally read history set far in the past, but I’m far more interested in the modern era that began with the Industrial Revolution.
T. J. Stiles won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this outstanding biography of one of the seminal figures in American economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the model for the generation of capitalists who came to be known as Robber Barons.
The amazing story of a 19th century superstar, little remembered today, who was regarded as a genius by Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders of Western civilization during and after his lifetime. This is the man who first laid down the principles of ecology — more than 200 years ago.
If any one person was most responsible for today’s divisive politics in America — and for the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — it’s Roger Ailes. As the longtime chairman of Fox News, Ailes steadily made Right-Wing extremism ever more respectable. We’re all paying the price for that now and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.
Few Americans today can imagine the abject fear that stalked summertime America when polio epidemics were an annual occurrence. Jonas Salk solved the problem. Often shunned by his fellow scientists, Salk was a true pioneer. He ignored the limitations of medical science as it was known in his day to fashion drug trials that gave us the first (and safest) polio vaccine.
Hollywood’s portrayals of Queen Cleopatra bore little resemblance to the reality, as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this extraordinary original biography. More historiography than simple history, Schiff examines how the legend of Cleopatra grew over the centuries — and was steadily distorted in the process.
John F. Kennedy’s younger brother was showing the potential to eclipse him when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on his path to the White House. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Bobby Kennedy played a significant role at the side of his brother, and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon, it’s difficult to point to much in JFK’s presidency that history will regard as truly significant. Bobby seemed prepared to do much more.
Social change movements don’t start by themselves. Someone leads them. And often that person is what today we call a community organizer. Cesar Chavez was one such man, and this excellent biography is about the gifted teacher who taught him the tricks of the trade.
This surprising biography of the Civil War hero and famous failure won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. As Stiles makes clear, the jealousy of Custer’s fellow officers was probably in large part responsible for the general’s defeat at the Little Big Horn.
Though mainstream society shunned him as a criminal, most African-Americans in his time looked on Malcolm X as a hero. Along with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm must be considered one of the most significant figures in recent American history.
The real-life Karl Marx was very different from the caricature created by Lenin, Stalin, and their minions. He was, in fact, a man of his time and not really a revolutionary in the manner of Lenin, much less Stalin or Mao.
Today we take for granted that scientific advancement comes from huge, well-funded teams, not solitary individuals laboring away in white coats. This biography of the remarkable atomic physicist Ernest Lawrence tells the story of how Big Science came to be — and how he was a central figure in its creation.
Few of us know any more about the Wright Brothers than the image lingering in our minds of that flimsy biplane lifting off the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Here, the prize-winning biographer David McCullough tells their remarkable story. What’s especially interesting are the years after Kitty Hawk, when the brothers became world famous.
David McCullough’s intimate biography of Steve Jobs grabbed the headlines, and it was beautifully done, as is all of McCullough’s work. But this later entry from two journalists who followed Jobs closely for many years gives a far more accurate and balanced picture of the man and his life. He was even more complex than we knew.
In his time, Joe Kennedy was considered by some (especially himself) as a possible contender for the Presidency. When his hopes were frustrated, he transferred his ambitions to his sons. This is the insightful story of a remarkable man who established one of the most important families of 20th-Century America.
In his own time, Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous men in America. As an attorney — the country’s leading attorney — for unpopular people and causes, he was probably loathed at least as widely as he was loved. But no one would ever have dreamed of dismissing him as inconsequential.
Among the Tsars of Russia, only Peter the Great can be considered as a peer to the Prussian woman who married an heir to the throne and came to be called Catherine the Great when she succeeded her husband after a few years. Catherine ruled over the country for 34 years, expanding its borders and modernizing its institutions along Western European lines.
Espionage is, of course, a risky business. Few spies manage to operate undiscovered for more than a few years. Those who gain access to secrets at the highest level tend to be in even greater jeopardy. Kim Philby was a rare exception. For three decades, he worked undercover in the UK as a spy for the Soviet Union inside the British intelligence establishment. Even after his English colleagues became convinced he was a spy and isolated him from access to sensitive information, the CIA continued to defend him.
In its own time, and into the present day, the Church of Latter-Day Saints was one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. For decades, the religion founded early in the 19th century by an uneducated young man in Upstate New York defended the practice of polygamy, a practice which the founder himself indulged in to an extreme degree. Eventually, the Mormon church abandoned its defense of plural marriage, but the mystifying fantasy at the heart of the beliefs expounded by Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago live on.
Much of what the public knows about poverty in the Global South comes from the work of an American economist who gained fame at an early age working a “miracle” in Bolivia. Unfortunately, there were no miracles to follow in any of his work over the following three decades. As Nina Munk makes clear through diligent research, Jeffrey Sachs is no miracle-maker, and the path he described out of poverty is a dead end.
A Russian-American journalist unmasks the former KGB agent who has set out to reconstruct the Soviet empire and is now aggressively taking on the world. His intervention in Syria and his meddling in the 2016 American elections are just two of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to work his way on the world. And, by the way, he’s stolen enough to amass a personal fortune of $40 billion. While Putin and his cronies have become absurdly rich, the Russian economy is in a shambles.
Robert Caro is one of America’s most celebrated political biographers. Though not without its critics, his multi-volume portrait of Lyndon Johnson is widely regarded to be one of the best presidential biographies ever written — and it’s yet to be finished. The Passage of Power is the fourth volume, and it brings Johnson’s story only up to 1964, when he was elected in his own right to the White House.
Like so many clowns, Kurt Vonnegut lived a sad life. His satirical take-downs of war, corporations, and life in mid-century America in his books were sometimes hilarious. But it doesn’t appear that the man laughed a lot. And even though for many years Vonnegut was regarded as one of America’s most important writers, it remains to be seen whether that reputation can endure much longer.
Any educated person in America today is likely to be familiar with two of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in social psychology. One was the “obedience” experiment, in which he proved that Yale undergraduates could be persuaded to induce extreme, and even life-threatening, pain on others simply because they were told to do so. The other was the “small world” experiment, in which Milgram proved that we are separated from one another by no more than “six degrees of separation.”
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to the CIA, was responsible for much of the partisan activity behind Nazi lines in Europe. Though later evidence suggests it was only marginally helpful to the war effort, Donovan and his work had the confidence of FDR and became world famous.
The historical record is shocking enough: the future Secretary of State and future CIA director helped steer Wall Street capital and American business to Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. The older brother, Foster, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with his diplomatic brinksmanship. The younger, Allen, first helped Nazi war criminals escape to the US and South America after World War II, sometimes with the fortunes they plundered. Later, he led US efforts to assassinate heads of government in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, and probably many others. Yet, as David Talbot showed in his later book (listed just below), even worse was to come.
Digging much more deeply into the historical record, including interviews with contemporaries of Dulles and recently opened secret files, San Francisco investigative journalist David Talbot paints a much darker and more credible picture of Allen Dulles than Kinzer did in The Brothers. Even after JFK fired him as CIA Director, Dulles continued to meddle in political affairs at the highest level — with catastrophic consequences.
The astounding-but-true tale of how a penniless Eastern European immigrant founded the United Fruit Company, helped engineer the murder of the President of Guatemala, and became one of the richest men in the world. It was Samuel Zemurray whose efforts shaped the history several of what came to be called “banana republics.”
Living as we do surrounded by the prodigious spawn of the scientific method, we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of nearly everything as a manifestation of science. At least I have. So it came naturally to me to take a broad view of the field when I surveyed the nearly 700 book reviews on my blog to select those that are integrally related to the topic of science. The result is that the 30 nonfiction books I list below encompass everything from psychology, nanotechnology, robotics, oncology, nuclear science, space travel, infectious disease, to a host of other scientific subjects.
In choosing these 30 books, I’ve eliminated several others that I’ve read and reviewed but didn’t think merited calling out here. (I’ve included only those I rated @@@@ or @@@@.) The 30 are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
To forestall the question I know some readers will be tempted to ask, yes, I do have favorites among these 30 books. I feel moved to name three: Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s history of cancer and its treatment, and Rebecca Skloot’s remarkable book about the sad experience of one African-American family with the medical establishment.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, by K. Eric Drexler
Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell
Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick
Beyond: Our Future in Space, by Chris Impey
Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert
Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach
Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, by Tiffany Shlain
NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, by Ginger Strand
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Whelan
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf
I’ve read a lot of biographies since I began posting book reviews in January 2010. Well over three dozen, actually. I’m listing here the 35 that I can recommend, omitting several that underwhelmed me (in addition to others I couldn’t finish reading).
These books cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs.
As you can see, most of these 35 biographies fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history. The categories are arbitrary: many of these books fall into more than one. However, I chose just one, not wanting to list any titles twice.
Each title below is hyperlinked to my review.
Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf
The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, by Ginger Strand
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, by Tom Turner
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable
One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner
Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell
The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson #4 of 5), by Robert A. Caro
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles
Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie
And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber
NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Only in the last two decades has a consensus about autism developed among the psychiatrists, psychologists, and neurologists who traffic in the science of the mind. Even today, thousands, perhaps millions, flock to the defense of the quacks and charlatans who perpetuate the myth that autism is caused by vaccines, especially the MMR vaccine for the childhood afflictions of measles, mumps, and rubella. That theory, never demonstrably reasonable, has been soundly disproved.
More sensible people, and all but a handful of psychological practitioners, agree today that “most cases of autism are not rooted in rare de novo mutations [much less vaccinations] but in very old genes that are shared widely in the general population while being concentrated more in certain families than others. Whatever autism is, it is not a unique product of modern civilization.” Science journalist Steve Silberman reports this finding from DNA research in the closing pages of his richly detailed and insightful study of the subject, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. In the hundreds of pages that precede this explanation, Silberman traces the history of autism throughout the twentieth century, when it was first became subject of close study.
“Asperger’s syndrome” or “autism?”
Today, most of us nonspecialists look at autism, narrowly defined, as one sector of the broad continuum familiarly known as the autism spectrum. Technically, Asperger’s syndrome refers only to some individuals on the spectrum, not all. As Silberman explains, this concept was a very long time coming. For most of the past century, autism was regarded as a form of childhood schizophrenia, an illness with neurological roots that is far rarer and much different from autism. However, for many decades, those diagnosed with the condition were almost invariably committed to the sort of institutions that Charles Dickens might have deplored. Sadly, so-called “expert” psychiatrists and psychologists — the reigning authorities in the field — were responsible for this tragic misconception. Most of them should have known better. Some did.
Working in Vienna in the 1930s and 40s, the extraordinary child psychiatrist Dr. Hans Asperger led a team of specialists who studied children with a wide range of intellectual abilities and troubling physical behavior. Their subjects ranged all the way from youngsters who screamed and flapped their hands uncontrollably and appeared not to learn language at all to the few brainy and articulate youngsters whom Asperger called his “little professors.” Asperger viewed these conditions as occurring along a continuum. Even more important, he insisted that every individual child could be helped with carefully tailored treatment — and he proved that contention with his patient and understanding care.
Unfortunately, a European-American child psychiatrist in Baltimore named Leo Kanner also “discovered” autism in 1943, a year before Asperger published his groundbreaking paper on the subject. Kanner focused only on “high-functioning” children. He regarded autism as “monolithic by definition, limited to childhood, and exceedingly rare.” To Kanner, “autism was not merely an eccentric cognitive style or an alternate mind-set. It was a tragic form of childhood psychosis, akin to schizophrenia, caused by inadequate parenting.” Kanner wrote in English, Asperger in German. For decades after the war, no doubt partly because Asperger had worked in a Nazi-controlled country, his paper was not translated. It remained unknown to the profession. Kanner’s harsher and much more restrictive view of the condition excluded nonverbal children and denied the existence of adults with autism — and his view, which came to be almost universally adopted in the United States, caused several decades of psychiatrists and psychologists to blame parents for their children’s challenges.
Are programmers autistic?
An editor at Wired, Silberman’s journey toward understanding the history of autism began in Silicon Valley, when he noted “a disproportionately high demand for autism services in the cradle of the technology industry.” A supervisor at Microsoft reported to him, “All of my top debuggers have Asperger syndrome. They can hold hundreds of lines of code in their head as a visual image. They look for the flaws in the pattern, and that’s where the bugs are.” Pursuing this observation into the history of science, he learned about a number of outstanding researchers who demonstrated behavior that unquestionably would place them on the spectrum. For example, the late Oliver Sacks had written about the British chemist and physicist, Henry Cavendish, identifying him as a classic example of autism; Silberman refers to others. Sacks, who wrote the Foreword to NeuroTribes, was one of the many people he interviewed in depth in the course of his research.
In the final analysis, Silberman writes, the focus on autism has led to “the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.” Which is altogether a far more humane and satisfying viewpoint than the misconceptions that held sway for most of human history.
If this book intrigues you, you might take a look at Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books. This one is included. Also, this book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016.
@@@ (3 out of 5)
Renata Ghali, known to all as Ren, is seventy years of age and expects to live to two hundred. Like the thousand others in the tiny colony they’ve established on an unnamed, Earth-like planet, she is plugged into a cloud-based network through an implant in her brain. Her vision is enhanced by a bio-engineered lens. Ren lives in a home she built out of living, biological materials that enables her to live without creating waste or requiring energy beyond what the skin of her house can absorb from the sun. In fact, all the homes in the colony are similar. Ren, the community’s engineer, built them all.
These and other aspects of the world Emma Newman has created in her new novel, Planetfall, represent an ingenious picture of humanity’s future, one that is based on foreseeable advances in science and technology. This promising landscape might have formed the backdrop for a fascinating work of speculative fiction. Instead, however, Newman veers off into metaphysics and fantasy about a mysterious alien structure that looms above the colony. The colonists call it “God’s city.” We’re informed that the colony was planted here because Ren’s former lover, Lee Suh-Mi, woke from a coma twenty-two years ago with a vision that God lived on this planet. For some unstated reason, a thousand people, most of them superbly capable scientists, elected to follow her to this distant planet.
Does any of this sound likely? Not to me. Despite the many troubles they left behind on Earth, it’s far too much of a stretch to believe that highly educated scientists would fall for Lee’s delusion. Then dissension breaks out in the colony shortly after Lee’s grandson, Lee Sung-Soo, mysteriously walks into the community — mysteriously, because Ren and everyone else in this unnamed settlement believed that all the other would-be colonists who traveled with them died twenty-two years ago. The action that ensues — and there’s plenty of it — is equally difficult to believe. Science fiction frees us to speculate about science, technology, and future social and political trends, but, like fiction in any genre, it needs to be based on credible psychology. This book isn’t.
Emma Newman is a young British science fiction and fantasy writer best known for a series of fantasy novels. Planetfall is her fifth novel.
For other science fiction novels, ones I’ve actually enjoy a lot, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
H.G. Wells in War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and countless other authors and filmmakers have imagined what First Contact with an alien race might be like. Get ready now for Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein, which paints a picture that’s entirely different from anything else you’re likely to have come across.
This book is full of surprises — so many that merely to summarize the plot would be to spoil the story. Suffice it to say that this tale, which begins in the year 2067, describes humanity’s first contact with civilization from beyond the Solar System. However, Saturn Run is “hard” science fiction, based on proven science and engineering, with as little speculation as possible.
Because of Sandford’s skill in plotting and character development, the novel is a superior example of the genre. However, for a klutz like me with zero mechanical ability and only the most rudimentary understanding of science, I found myself getting bogged down in what seemed to be interminable passages about the technical side of the story. Sandford and Ctein could have been a lot kinder to general readers like me by taking a red pencil to most of that and compressing the book into a shorter and faster-moving story.
John Sandford — a pen name for John Roswell Camp — is one of America’s best-selling crime writers. He’s the author of forty-two novels and three books of nonfiction (Sandford is a former journalist). Ctein, who looks like a refugee from Game of Thrones, is a photographer (he calls himself an artist) and an English and Physics graduate of CalTech who has written more than 500 articles.
In a lengthy Authors’ Note at the conclusion of Saturn Run, the two men go into considerable detail to explain the scientific basis of virtually all the technical aspects of their novel. Apparently, Sandford had the original idea for the novel, and Ctein supplied the scientific know-how. I got the impression that Sandford bent over backwards to give Ctein equal time — or, rather, an equal number of pages. The book could have benefited greatly from a less even-handed division of labor.