The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading,Reader of the Stack Goes Scientific — Ibis at 7:40 pm on Saturday, October 29, 2011

From the back cover:
“Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner’s Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. ”

My thoughts:
I loved this book, the story of the two men who drove the formation of a scientific medical examiner’s office in Prohibition-era New York City. A great mix of chemistry, interesting anecdotes of purposeful and accidental poisonings, political wrangling between several mayors and civil servants who just want to do the job they’re mandated to perform, the effects of Prohibition, the Depression, and the burgeoning machine age upon the populace. There could have been a bit more chemistry and biology, a little less detail about various animal experiments, but overall I think Blum struck the perfect balance to keep readers interested. A fascinating look at what things were like prior to regulated industry (proof to all those crazy libertarians that industry can’t be trusted to look after the best interests of people). A testament to two great men who worked tirelessly not just for knowledge for its own sake but in order to help people. There’s just so much material for thought here, but the presentation makes it a quick and easy read. Great book for a book club to read.

My rating: 8.5/10

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton
Filed under: General Reading,Reader of the Stack Goes Scientific,Reader of the Stack Goes Young — Ibis at 7:26 pm on Sunday, October 2, 2011

From the back cover:
“Evolution is the process that created the terrible teeth of Tyrannosaurus rex and the complex human brain, clever enough to understand the workings of nature. Young readers will learn how a British naturalist named Charles Darwin studied nature and developed his now-famous concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest. And how modern-day science has added to our understanding of the theory of evolution.

Can something as complex and wondrous as the natural world be explained by a simple theory? The answer is yes, and now Evolution explains how in a way that makes it easy to understand.”

My thoughts:
A pretty decent explanation of evolution–surely better than what many students in the US public education system get in their whole time in primary and secondary school. I just finished reading The Blind Watchmaker, and I recognised many of the points and examples from there in the first part of Loxton’s book (he even drops Dawkins’ name a couple of times for some reason–like instead of saying “biologists” or “scientists” think he says “biologist Richard Dawkins thinks”). One significant omission was the discussion of ring species as evidence of evolution that we can see in real time.

The second part was a take down of common creationist talking points, presented in a question-answer format. Most of these were rather good, explaining things well in a short space without being either condescending or too abstruse for the target audience. I did however, think the answers to the final two questions were a bit weak and a little too much on the side of accommodation.

The first dealt with abiogenesis, and instead of being quite firm that though the details are sketchy, scientists have arrived at several plausible methods whereby living cells could have evolved from self-replicating chemicals. Instead, he stresses the fact that we don’t yet know how it happened, making it sound like we have no real clue at all. At least that’s how it came across. Okay, but not strong enough for my taste.

The second question was the one about religion. I mean, if he’s going to bring up religion at all he shouldn’t take the “non-overlapping magisteria” tack. It’s rather a cop out. It’s wrong to tell kids that “science as a whole has nothing to say about religion”. It’s an easy thing to say, and might prevent your book being banned by anti-intellectual parents, but it’s just not true. Science has plenty to say about religious claims: in the form of evidence-based history and archaeology, in the form of controlled studies of the efficacy of prayer, miracle claims, in the form of the study of neurology and the human brain to determine whether there’s any evidence for body/spirit dualism, in the study of anthropology and sociology to figure out how religion develops and operates in society and in diverse human cultures…you get my point. Sorry Daniel, “your family, friends and community” are not the “best people to ask about religious questions”. You want a kid to develop critical thinking skills? Don’t tell them to ask questions of people who may have a biased interest in selling their own religion, and say they’re the best option. Tell them to be critical and ask some experts or read some books by experts on those subjects.

Also, very important to consider when evaluating children’s books:

Presence of Sexism – A
Men and women, girls and boys are presented fairly equally. Loxton seemed to make an effort to include a female scientist by talking about paleontologist Mary Anning. So overall, a good job.
There is a page talking about hominids and the misleading “March of Progress” image which would have been better had it included both a man and woman in each place.

Presence of Heterosexism – mostly N/A
As sex was hardly mentioned at all aside from a couple of places where we would have to infer it (e.g. he uses a compromise in tail lengths as an example of balance between selection for speed and selection for sexual attractiveness, but doesn’t actually ever explain sexual selection).

Presence of Racism – B+
There’s quite a bit of diversity among questioners, but when humans were the subject that was being discussed, the illustrations were of white people only, and the March of Progress page still made it look a little bit like modern humans in the form of white people (actually men) were the “most evolved” or what have you. Definitely not the impression he was trying to make, but it could come across that way subliminally.

My rating: 7.5/10