Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
Filed under: General Reading,Reader of the Stack Goes Scientific — Ibis at 10:37 pm on Sunday, June 13, 2010

From the back cover:
“Why do we look the way we do?
Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the ‘fish with hands,’ tells the story of our bodies as you’ve never heard it before. By examining fossils and DNA, he shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our heads are organized like long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genome look, and function, like those of worms and bacteria. Your Inner Fish makes us look at ourselves and our world in an illuminating new light. This is science writing at its finest—enlightening, accessible, and told with irresistible enthusiasm.”

My thoughts:
I really enjoyed this book when I read it last year as a library copy. So much so that I decided to send it toStephen Harper for the What Is Stephen Harper Reading: BookCrossing Edition Release Challenge.

Rather than try to recover my initial thoughts, I went back to some posts I made on the BookCrossing Book Talk forum and will quote them here.

I […] am now reading Your Inner Fish which seems okay so far, but the author seems like he’s aiming at someone far younger or with far less general knowledge than me. It’s like he’s talking to a 15 year old. It’s also annoying, especially in a book about science, to have measurements in US imperial instead of metric measures.

Finished Your Inner Fish, which was pretty good on the information side, though I was less than impressed by the style (just a bit too condescending, like he was talking to a child). Anyway, the book was well worth reading. I was aching for some science and got it. Very fascinating discussion of various anatomical features humans have (e.g. limbs, eyes, ears, bodies) and from what ancestors we got them (fish, microbes, worms). Interesting stuff like how the bones in mammalian ears evolved from jawbones of fish, and how our genes show evidence of messy evolution over time rather than any kind of rational design.

There are similarities even with fish and chicken embryos. It’s all very fascinating.

From the book:
Watching the process of development brought about a huge intellectual transformation in me. From such simple embryonic beginnings–small blobs of cells–came wonderfully complex birds, frogs, and trout comprising trillions of cells arranged in just the right way. But there was more. The fish, amphibian, and chicken embryos were like nothing I had ever seen before in biology. They all looked generally alike. All of them had a head with gill arches. All of them had a little brain that began its development from three swellings. All of them had little limb buds. In fact, the limbs were to become my thesis, the focus of my next three years’ work. Here, in comparing how the skeleton develops in birds, salamanders, frogs, and turtles, I was finding that limbs as different as bird wings and frog legs looked very similar during their development. In seeing these embryos, I was seeing a common architecture. The species ended up looking different, but they started from a generally similar place. Looking at embryos, it almost seems that the differences among mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish simply pale in comparison with their fundamental similarities.

Flies have genes that are associated with development of sections of their bodies and those same genes in us are associated with the same regions of our bodies. Shark heads and human heads have the same gill arches and nerve structures. Very cool.

It’s also amazing to think of how life went from being a bunch of single celled organisms into all the myriads of species we see today, all from miniscule changes over time.

He also has some very interesting facts about weaknesses we have due to our evolutionary history. For example, hiccups are a holdover from our amphibian days when as tadpoles we needed to close our airway.

QueenBoadicea wrote:
> Thanks for the critique. The condescending
> tone you mention is off-putting but
> perhaps the author was simply trying to
> make the book accessible to the average
> reader and didn’t want to discourage them
> by making it too esoteric.

Yeah, it kind of sounds like he’s used to talking to students who may not be the brightest on the block. But then, I’m sure many people would like the style because he sounds like a ‘regular guy’ explainin’ stuff & not some ivory tower academic or esoteric scientist who’s forgotten how to speak English.

LOL. I guess my problem was that it was *too* readable. But that was only a mild annoyance. Overall, I thought it was good and thought-provoking.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading — Ibis at 5:00 pm on Sunday, June 13, 2010

From the back cover:
“‘For God’s sake, come!’ Unfortunately, by the time Hercule Poirot received Monsieur Renauld’s urgent plea, the millionaire was already dead—stabbed in the back, lying in a freshly dug grave on the golf course of his adjoining Merlinville estate. There’s no lack of suspects: his wife, whose dagger served as the weapon; his embittered son, who would have killed for independence; and his mistress, who refused to be ignored—and each felt deserving of the dead man’s fortune. The police think they’ve found the culprit. Poirot has his doubts. A second murder proves him right.”

My thoughts:
This is Agatha Christie’s second novel featuring Hercule Poirot and his sidekick Captain Hastings. From the title, I was a little concerned that golf would be heavily featured (as apparently have most book cover designers for the novel), but in fact it isn’t really mentioned at all. One of the bodies in the case is found on property which happens to be a golf course under construction, but that’s the only connection to the game.

In this one, Poirot using his knowledge of human psychology, observation of the people involved, and his memory of a prior murder case is pitted against a French detective using “modern” methods of evidence collection and analysis. Hastings, blinded by the attractive and/or interesting women he encounters, is particularly foolish (for example, leaving one of them alone with the body for several minutes).

Some of the twists in the plot I figured out, but still I was surprised at learning the identity of the killer, so overall it was a good mystery. I didn’t care for the object of Hastings’ affection and had to agree with his initial dislike of her but it will be interesting to see how their relationship plays out in future books. Next comes a collection of Poirot short stories.

Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff
Filed under: Book Reviews,Man Booker Prize — Ibis at 8:30 pm on Sunday, June 6, 2010

From the jacket:
“At the heart of Michael Ignatieff’s disquieting novel of a woman’s descent into illness are the tangled threads of a family, strained by tragedy yet still tenuously connected.

An anguished philosophy professor watches his dying mother’s measured steps into the mysterious depths of neurological illness: the misplaced glasses, kitchen catastrophes, and anecdotes told over and over to a family overcome with fearful sympathy. His strenuous efforts to make sense of his mother’s suffering lead him to learn all he can about her illness, renewing contact with his neurologist brother in the process. But medical science can do nothing to ease loss, and genetics now routinely predicts destinies that medicine is powerless to avert.

More than a tale of isolated tragedy, Scar Tissue explores the fragile lines of memory, their configuration in identity, and the ways in which both are at one moment formed and the next shattered. Nominated for the Booker Prize, Scar Tissue is an intensely personal novel about family, love in all its guises, and the ultimate triumph of life over loss.”

My thoughts:
This is the kind of book I’m normally thoroughly uninterested in reading. Disease (or disability) and people’s response to it are turn-offs when it comes to reading selection for me. If I want to experience a root canal, I’ll petition a dentist, if lameness, I could shoot myself in the foot. If I have to deal with my mother dying of Alzheimer’s, once will be enough. I don’t need a sneak preview.

I only wished to read it because this was the novel for which Michael Ignatieff got on the Booker shortlist. I hadn’t read anything by him and wanted to (start to) get a feel for him through his work, seeing as he could be Prime Minister some day (though that’s looking less and less likely). Can I say I enjoyed his writing without enjoying the book? Just a little too absorbed with the whole mental deterioration thing. It’s just not to my taste. If this is the kind of topic you like, it’s well worth reading. Lot’s of contemplation about what makes self, and how self-consciousness and self are integrated. Not sure how autobiographical it is, since it came across as incredibly authentic. On the plus side, I’d be very interested in reading more by him.