The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read: 5 December, 2016

Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Read: 22 May, 2016

In this book, Mary Roach explores the weird science and history of space exploration. As with Stiff, the writing is absolutely delightful – full of humour, interesting factoids, and tangents in all the right places.

Roach always seems to be able to guess just what sorts of follow up questions I might have, and is always ready with either the information I’m craving or perfectly suitable substitute joke.

It’s so hard to write a review for a book that is so flawless. Packing had me in stitches – it’s the kind of book you read around other people so you can interrupt them all and read out passages. And the best part is that no one will even be annoyed!

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The Friendly Guide to the Universe by Nancy Hathaway

Read: 28 May, 2013

I was recommended this book as an astronomy primer for kids, and I found it absolutely fantastic! The writing style is conversational and accessible, and the information is presented in a way that builds on what’s come before, forming a sort of narrative (even if it can seem a little haphazard to an organization-prone mind like mine).

I loved that it didn’t stick just to the science itself. Most of my kids’ books about astronomy will have little side boxes about Galileo and Capernicus, obviously, but The Friendly Guide really gives a lot of ink over to astronomers and physicists through history, and to the stories of their discoveries. There were also, I was pleased to see, several women included.

The book also includes a lot of general “culture,” such as snippets of poetry and prose about the universe, and even some discussion of paintings that feature “heavenly bodies” in some way. I also enjoyed all the discussions of mythology, and why the names for the planets in our solar system were chosen.

As much as I loved the book, however, it did have some flaws. Right in the middle of Galileo’s chapter, there’s a section about trying to figure out when Jesus was born by looking at what astronomical event could have inspired the Star of Bethlehem story. And then, later, there’s a discussion of UFOs in which Hathaway asks “what about about those few instances for which there is no logical explanation?” and concludes by positing that maybe some people are delusional or maybe the government is covering up – who knows?

The Star of Bethlehem chapter could easily have been excluded entirely and no one reading would have noticed. As for the UFO chapter, the experienced phenomena were given far more credence that they were worth. In both cases, the information presented wasn’t false, but it was open to being misleading. It doesn’t diminish the quality of the book for me, since these are topics that I would want to discuss with my son and the chapters do work as jumping off points for further study, but I am glad that I read through the book myself first so that I could be prepared to address the sections.

The book is fine for any age, but I think it would work really well to introduce a 8-12 year old to astronomy.

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Flatland by Edwin Abbott

Read: 30 November, 2011

A. Square, an inhabitant of the two-dimensional Flatland, is taken on a journey of Lineland, Spaceland, and Pointland, during which he learns to transcend many of his assumptions about the universe and the natural order.

There are two parts to the Flatland narrative. The first reads like your standard (albeit clever – clever enough to fool several contemporary reviewers) social commentary, while the second tries to illustrate the failings of perspective and how trapped we are in comprehending only our own and lower dimensions. But as with any excellent writer, the division is never quite so clear and the second part provides a very interesting lens for the first.

I knew going in that I would enjoy Flatland; I’d heard enough about it for that. I’m glad to say that I was not disappointed. This is an excellent and readable novel that is one part social commentary, one part math, and one part Crusoe adventure!

I highly recommend the Broadview edition of the text. As always, the notes, introduction, and additional materials are both interesting and informative.

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The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Read: 10 October, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth is a fantastic introduction to the theory of evolution. Although marketed towards adults, I think it’s really more appropriate for a tween/early teen level, to provide a solid foundation in evolution.

The book is written in Dawkins’ approachable language, and he explains difficult concepts in a very simple and easy to understand way. Illustrations are well chosen and well used to emphasise his points.

The only real downside is that the preface dwells a bit too long on the Creationism issue. While terribly satisfying for the True Believer, it would be a turn off for someone neutral or leaning towards Creationism and interested in learning more. It’s a shame, although perhaps no more damaging that having the name Richard Dawkins printed on the cover.

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Flim-Flam by James Randi

Read: 20 October, 2011

I don’t consider myself to be a Skeptic. I run with a lot of people in the skeptic community, and I do think of myself and generally skeptical, but I’m not a big-S Skeptic. I knew of James Randi, of course, but I was never terribly familiar with him or his work. So when the Centre for Inquiry managed to book him for a pan-Canada tour, I figured that I ought to read up on him a little bit before he hit Ottawa.

Because I was reading Flim-Flam around the same time that I saw Randi speak live, the parallels between the two were made quite evident. In both cases, there’s an ostensible thesis, although the experience is much more of a series of vignettes from Randi’s professional life.

The tone throughout the book is light and conversational, like Randi’s telling an acquaintance about the work he does. He covers a number of psychics and supernatural phenomena, explaining the tricks. He personally exposed most of them, although some, such as the Cottingley fairies, are merely explained.

I found Flim-Flam to be an interesting read – enough so to inspire me to want to learn more about conjuring and mentalism. And while it was written in the early ’80s, it really isn’t at all dated. Recommended for anyone with an interest in the paranormal, or with skepticism in general.

Your humble narrator meets the aptly-named Amazing Randi.

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The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Read: 22 October, 2010

The basic premise of The Moral Landscape is that the well-being of sentient creatures is the proper measuring stick to determine morality. He convincingly argues that defining morality simply as that which God likes or dislikes is absurd, in the same way as defining it based on the wishes of a king would be absurd. But on the other side of the debate, the idea that morality is a natural offshoot from our evolution as social animals, merely describes an ‘is’ and does not allow us to argue for or against the ‘shoulds’ we may encounter in our navigation of ethics. The well-being of creatures sufficiently aware to care about well-being is the only measure that makes any sense.

In the book, Harris anticipates and responds to a number of criticisms. The greatest of these is the question of whether well-being is even worth valuing in the first place – what makes this, above all others, the concept that ought to be at the centre of this debate? To answer this, Harris compares well-being to health. Why should we value health? None of us would think twice about calling someone insane who argues that health ought to be defined as weight as much as possible, so why do claim that there is no way to say whether a patriarchal system in which half the population is kept under constant bondage is any worse than a society in which genders are viewed as equal?

He also brings up the idea of neuroscience – that we will one day be able to scan people’s brains to determine what truly contributes to well-being, and what people have merely been acculturated into thinking it does.

I’ve been surprised by how poor the book’s reception has been among the atheist community. It seems that many have fallen into the trap Harris anticipated, arguing that there is no reason to value well-being above any other criteria. But for my own part, I’m convinced. Harris challenges his readers to think of any criteria that would be equally valuable in resolving ethical issues, and I’ve been unable to think of any. It seems as obvious to me that well-being is the only foundation that makes any sense at all. Once we accept this premise, it seems obvious to me that ethical questions could potentially be resolved with right or wrong answers.

Find your basis for secular objective morality by buying The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values from Amazon (and support this blog in the process)!