Tag Archives: science

Nexus, by Ramez Naam

Nexus

What It’s About

In the near future, humans have found myriad ways to augment themselves. These new developments are both feared and anticipated, used and abused. A fragile balance of power lies between those who would explore the limits of transhumanist technologies and those who would limit and regulate it. When a new street drug gives people the ability to connect empathically and telepathically, however, the two forces are forced to come to a head.

Why I Think You’d Like It

As far as my personal tastes go, this is the gold standard for hard sci-fi. As much as I enjoy SF elements justified with “because it’s cool,” there is something special about intensely researched, maximally plausible science fiction. The only reason I don’t read more of it is that, too often, the characters aren’t people. For me personally, that’s an absolute dealbreaker.

Ramez Naam was a computer programmer and posthumanist philosopher long before he started writing fiction. He knows his stuff. But what I love most is how alive his characters are. He has an enormous cast to juggle; not quite to the George R. R. Martin level, but to the level of someone who has his picture on their vision board. Despite that, every one has their own distinct voice. He shows you who looks for the exits first when they enter a room, and who wanders over to the paintings on the wall, who defines themselves in relation to their past and who obsessively imagines the future, who spends most of their time admiring others and who calculates the best way to use others, and who barely thinks of other people at all. All of that happens so naturally that it took me a while to realize just why I had such an easy time keeping track of whose head I was in. This book gave me revelations on how to write characters.

I also love that, although he has his own thoughts on whether or not transhumanist evolution would be a good thing, he avoids simply dividing his cast into heroes and villains. There are characters who horrifically abuse technology that he clearly loves, and there are characters who have painfully sympathetic reasons for opposing it. While he successfully brings you around to his side, he does so without resorting to strawmen or other cheap narrative tricks. Or at least, he did with me; I think even if you’re not totally convinced, you’ll still enjoy the book, which is a testament to how well he explores the idea.

He also does representation exactly the way I think all authors should. The women all have goals that don’t revolve around men and relationships, and Bechdel’s Test is passed every few pages, with the natural ease that should be normal. Some people are randomly queer because the real world has random queer people. It starts out on the West Coast, and the characters come from an accurate variety of backgrounds. When they travel to Thailand, most of the new characters are Thai. That shouldn’t be remarkable, but you know what you mean. We’ve all seen the story set in a foreign country yet no important person is actually from there. I don’t know how accurate, say, the Thai culture is, but I can say that everybody was a person first, with gender/sexuality/ethnicity being just one among many pieces making up who they are.

All of this plays beautifully into the plot. He is telling a story about a fundamental reshaping of humanity, and to tell that story right, capturing humanity itself is essential. He absolutely nails it.

Content Warnings

It is a fairly intense book. Many factions are violent, and there are plenty of character deaths. Even when there is no actual fight scene, the threat of violence usually present.

He also explores the emotional and psychological abuses of this technology. This includes personality rewriting and taking over other people’s body. There are references to the technology being used for sexual abuses. It’s one case where I actually thought it was justified by the story. I hate it when rape is just treated as a requirement to make a story Gritty And Realistic(TM). But when violations of bodily autonomy and consent are an issue intregal your story, not acknowledging sexual violence would be a problematic oversight. One thing I appreciated was that these uses mostly happen offscreen. It mentioned as a reality and recalled as part of a few character’s backstories, but he never sucks you into a graphic scene.

There are also explicit sex scenes, but the only thing that’s portrayed as sexy is enthusiastic consent. There is one scene that might be triggering; a man is trying to hook up with a woman, and he has used a behavior modifying program to get over his awkwardness in flirting. A bug in the program causes him to lose control of his body. This is not portrayed as sexy, but equal parts scary and embarrassing. Neither of them suffer any long term harm, and if you want you can skip to the next line break without missing anything important.

Also there’s swearing, drugs and alcohol. Yeah, it’s definitely a grown-up book.

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The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene An Intimate History

What It’s About

A history of the discovery of the gene, the decoding of DNA, and all the difficult social and ethical questions that come with the science of genetics.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In general, I love the style of teaching science through it’s history. It’s a reminder that science is not a result, but a quest, and scientists not as austere demigods of knowledge, but fumbling discoverers who make no shortage of mistakes along the way.

In this book, it is an especially appropriate approach. Every scientific story has included the potential for abuse, but the science of genetics has been misused in some of the most horrific ways yet. Even the nuclear bomb can’t compete with the deaths and tortures we have justified with some misappropriated genetic jargon. By telling the history of genetic studies side by side with the cultural implications, Siddhartha Mukherjee brings home the importance of thinking hard about how we use and abuse genetics today.

He also tears apart the cultural abuses of science brilliantly. He starts with the justifications themselves; what people said in order to make segregation, forced sterilization and genocide sound not just socially acceptable, but enlightened. He puts you in the place of an ignorant citizen, easily impressed by anybody who sounds like they can tell a mitochondria from a protein. This is paired with reminders of the culture at the time, and the way certain lines of reasoning sound appealing as they justify pre-existing beliefs. Then, just as you’re beginning to worry about whose side he’s really on, he attacks. He lays out the lies, the misconceptions, the assumptions and outright biases. He exposes the reality of the lives affected by the various racist and toxic policies, and the actual moral questions we are left with. As he moves forward through history, you see the gaps close between antiquated notions and ideas we can find in any modern grocery store magazine stand. You see the common lineage of modern ableism, sexism and racism share with the eugenics movements of the past. He points out the flaws in saying, “well, they didn’t know better back then” by showing the questions that scientists could have asked, even with their resources at the time, but didn’t, and the dissenting voices that were ignored until it was too late.

But don’t think this is a downer book. It’s also full of the miracles and wonders of real science and true discover. The prose is fantastic as well. Siddhartha Mukherjee has a good sense of narrative rhythm, and hits a beautiful balance between thought provoking and fun to read. This history is fascinating and cool, but it’s not an abstract curiosity for any of us. He does a fantastic job reminding us of this.

This is an awesome book for anyone into science, history, politics, social justice, human rights, culture, or just learning for the sake of being a more informed person. It is fascinating and cool, but genetics not an abstract curiosity for any of us. It is inextricably linked to who we are, and how we view it will determine how we operate as a society.

Content Warnings

Nothing in a MPAA sense, but as you probably gathered, a good deal of the book covers arguments for oppression, and the real world consequences. Unless any of that would trigger actual PTSD symptoms, I’d encourage you to give this book a read. He is blunt, but not graphic, and the payoff is exponentially worthwhile.

The Tell-Tale Brain, by V. S. Ramachandran

The Tell Tale Brain

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Neuroscience, Behavioral Science
  • Summary
    • A world renowned neuroscientist ponders the biological roots of human nature.
  • Information
    • God, what isn’t here? Maybe it will be easier if I just give some of the chapter titles.
    • Phantom Limbs and Plastic Brains
    • Seeing and Knowing
    • The Power of Babble – The Evolution of Language
    • An Ape With a Soul – How Introspection Evolved
    • Loud Colors and Hot Babes – Synesthesia.
    • Yeah, that’s just a sampling. He goes into everything. EVERYTHING.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The quotes below give a good sense of his prose style. V. S. Ramachandran has a strong sense of the poetic and the philosophical and he weaves them together with practical, empirical data to create some of the most beautiful musings on the nature of humanity.
    • He avoids one of the most common pitfalls of people writing about psychology and neuroscience; he admits that the information is actively evolving. Human behavior brings in a whole new host of variables that are hard to control for, as well as a whole new minefield of experimenter biases. I’ve read too many books and articles that say, “this particular hormone did this in that test and this in that other, therefore it definitely one hundred percent explains why teenage girls talk on the phone all the time.” Yeah, that’s a reference to an actual book I read. Ugh. Anyway, back to the positives. In this book, if he says something is well-established, it’s because it’s actually well established. Other times, he goes into further studies we should do, possible alternative explanations, and the questions we still have. Where others plop down and try to insist that where we are is where the answers are, he gets you excited about the vast unexplored horizon ahead.
    • The above is especially a relief when he starts talking about issues like autism, where so many are proud to announce their theories as if they should be crowned Ultimate Solver of All The Things before they retire to a castle on their own private island. V. S. Ramachandran has theories and presents evidence, but he has the guts to admit there’s a lot of research left to do.
    • He’s also got a wonderful gift for making the technical understandable. Even someone fairly new to the subject material can follow him easily.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • His theories on the roots and evolution of aesthetics are absolutely fascinating and have kept me thinking for years.
    • So much psychological and neuroscientific writing ignores the most scientifically fascinating part of humanity; the fact that we can vary in the strangest, most unpredictable, most counterintuitive ways. It creates a reductive look at human behavior and leaves people out. V. S. Ramachandran takes the opposite approach. He actively embraces humanities little varieties and quirks. He covers apotemnophilia, synaesthesia, theories on biological causes for being transgender (I really enjoyed this part) and more. Even where I disagree, or think he’s only got part of the picture, I love that he sees those things as not just part of humanity, but essential to fully understanding it.
    • There’s just too much in this book. It’s fun and fascinating and beautiful and if you like science you should read it.
  • Content Warnings
    • Not applicable
  • Quotes
    • “What do we mean by “knowledge” or “understanding”? And how do billions of neurons achieve them? These are complete mysteries. Admittedly, cognitive neuroscientists are still very vague about the exact meaning of words like “understand,” “think,” and indeed the word “meaning” itself.”
    • “Yet as human beings we have to accept-with humility-that the question of ultimate origins will always remain with us, no matter how deeply we understand the brain and the cosmos that it creates.”
    • “How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, it the greatest mystery of all.”

Hope For Endangered Species And Their World, by Jane Goodall

Hope for Endangered Species

  • Genre
    • Nonfiction, Conservation, Zoology, Ecology
  • Summary
    • Jane Goodall, together with her fellow activists Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson, investigate success stories of animal species brought back from the brink of extinction.
  • Information
    • These stories are more than just warm, fuzzy and inspiring. They reveal crucial information about the real challenges of environmentalism. It’s easy to rail against human greed and destruction. It’s harder to get into the nitty gritty of what animals can adapt to and what they can’t, about the particular behaviors and needs of diverse species, about the specific links in every ecosystem, and the things we are still learning about rare, endangered species. Every chapter will teach you something you didn’t even realize was an issue, and all the creative ways people have found to overcome it. It’s brilliant and fascinating.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • If you’ve read any of Jane Goodall’s writing, you already know exactly what to expect, and don’t need any further convincing. For the rest of you; this book is full of love. You can feel Jane Goodall’s gentle affection for animals in every sentence. It’s also got a clear, almost homespun clarity to it. You feel like you’re a kid sitting down to tea with your coolest aunt; the one with all the stories, who seems to know everything, and who talks to you in a way that makes you feel more grown-up than you are.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I think any activist, whether environmental or not, will find this book not only inspiring, but empowering. We struggle with overwhelming obstacles, whatever we fight for, and there are too few narratives that talk honestly about them. We gloss over the mistakes, the failed experiments and the setbacks. As a result, actual activism becomes far too unappealing, and it becomes easier to talk about doing than actually move. This book will show you how, even when there seems to be no hope, the battle can still be won. It shows you how small actions really can add up to bigger changes. It reminds you that it’s worthwhile to fight.
    • Each chapter is a complete story, which can be read independently of the others. I love that in non-fiction. You can go, “okay, wallabies are adorable and all, but I’m dying to know how the california condors made it! Like, they were down to single digits so how the hell do you come back from that???” And voila, you can skip straight to that part. Maybe that’s just my personal impatience talking, but there you go.
    • Beautiful animal pictures! There are both black and white photos, and glossy color plates, and every one is just stunning.
    • If you go for the audiobook, Jane Goodall reads it herself, and she has the most delightfully soothing voice.
  • Content Warnings
    • N/A
  • Quotes
    • “It was close to midnight when Brent called out: ‘There’s one!’ And I saw the eyes of a small animal shining brilliant emerald green as they reflected his spotlight. As we drove closer, I made out the ferret’s head as she looked at us, listening to the engines. She did not vanish as we cautiously drove closer. And when she did duck down, she could not resist popping up for another look before disappearing. When we eventually went over to peek down the burrow, there was her little face, peeking back at us, not at all afraid.” 

 

Activism, Self-Care and the March for Science

A confession; although I’ve been looking forward to this for months, I nearly did not go. Lately I’ve been low on spoons, and I kept asking myself what I could really contribute. One more body? If I showed up and there was a massive turnout, I would not be necessary. If I showed up and there wasn’t, I would not be enough to fix it. On the other hand, I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I showed up. History is always happening, but these days it is happening at a rather more grueling pace.

Still, couldn’t I make up my absence with more concrete action, some other day?

In the end, what convinced me to get out and brave the rain wasn’t thoughts of what I could do. It was the realization that I needed the march more than the march needed me. In the first hundred days, the liberals have won more battles than they’ve lost. But they have had to fight hard, there have been losses, and there’s still plenty of time for the tide to turn. I want to take a break. I’m scared that if I do, that means everyone else will be too, and we will all be blindsided by the next move. I needed to get out there and see clear evidence that my people are still out there.

So I showed up, meandered, listened to speeches and read people’s signs. I’m an introvert with an anxiety disorder; I don’t much like having to interact with people. But I do like being around them. I’m a passionate crowd watcher. At the march, I was surrounded by xkcd shirts, brain hats, Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes, Lorax references and political math puns (apparently if you’re pro-choice, you vote Banach-Tarski in 2020… I was barely geeky enough to get that). There were buttons proclaiming that trans is beautiful and black lives matter. Some people blew bubbles in the rain, and watching them shimmer against the grey sky was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever seen.

And so many beautiful, dorky, incredible signs. I jotted down a few of my favorites;

  • “I only seem liberal because I think hurricanes are caused by barometric pressure, not gay marriage.”
  • A wordless portrait of Rosalind Franklin framed with plastic tube double helixes
  • (under a dead on Oregon Trail pixel drawing) “You have not died of dysentery. Thank science.”
  • “Donald, you’ll learn soon that Mar-a-lago is only 10 feet above sea level.”
  • “The earth is enormous and fragile, just like your ego. The difference is we can live without your ego.”

And my personal favorite…

  • “Science matters. Unless it’s energy. Then it equals matter times the speed of light squared.”

When I came home, I felt lighter. I also felt empowered, not least because I signed up for email lists to get more ideas for anti-fascist, pro-science and environmentalist activism. I got a reminder of just how many awesome weirdos are out there to fight ignorance and bigotry with me.

Take care of yourselves guys. Pace yourselves, join a team, sign up for a mailing list, and don’t be afraid to show up without knowing what exactly you’ll do for the cause, or how long you’ll even be able to stay. It’s okay. Just be there, to remind yourself that we aren’t doing this alone.