Monday, 27 May 2013

Book review: The Periodic Table - Primo Levi (1975)


I wish I hadn't taken so long to get around to reading The Periodic Table. Not only is it a great book on science, it's also brilliantly and wonderfully written. Levi has the intelligence of Borges, but deploys it more judiciously, to enliven his stories rather than as the basis of them. He also has the power to inspire wonder for our world and to make insightful observations about man and our relation to it.

I feel like this is a book that, if read early enough in one's life, could have the power to change the entire course of it. You can see why the Royal Institute voted it the best science book ever written, even if the actual amount of scientific content is not so very high. Is there any better description of the process of scientific enquiry than:

"... one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this - to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and complex, but it is not impermeable to the intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, look for the opening or make it."

These are words that should be engraved above the entrances of scientific institutions and in the minds of students everywhere.

I found particular joy in the chapters "Potassium", in which Levi warns of the dangers of "the practically identical" with a storytelling prowess bordering on the magical, and "Chromium", which delightfully illustrates both the investigational scientific process in action and the tendency of recieved wisdom to persist even when harmful.

One word of warning: opening chapter "Argon" requires much more work than the rest of the book, so I would recommend either leaving it to last or ensuring you carry straight on to "Hydrogen" afterwards, to ensure you don't become discouraged.

Because as Saul Bellow says on my edition's cover, "This is a book it is necessary to read."

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Get The Most Out Of Your Brain

How can you wring the most out of your sorry excuse for a brain? That poor, poor organ you won't stop dousing in alcohol for more than 19 hours at a time?

Lend it to someone else, that's what!

That's what I did back in 2010, when I answered an ad in the Guardian jobs listing looking for volunteers to take part in an MRI study in exchange for photos of my brain.

I'm an adverturous sort, if the adventure involves staying inside and lying down, as well as a bit of a neuro geek, and so I thought I'd give it a go.

Why am I telling you this now?

Because today I received an email from the person who led the study, one Emer J Hughes, who very kindly sent me a PDF of the first paper to emerge from it: 'Regional Changes in Thalamic Shape and Volume with Increasing Age', published in NeuroImage.

The study found that the thalamus, the part of the brain that as Hughes says in her introduction 'plays a critical role in the coordination of information flow in the brain, mediating communication and integrating many processes including memory, attention, and perception', decreases in volume with age, as do its connections with the frontal cortex, and that these changes correlate with decreases in attention, working memory and executive function.

So, basically, age-related mental decline may be partly due to weakened connections between certain parts of the brain.

As far as my own part in the study goes, I remember being told (after the tests were over) that I'd done remarkably well at remembering long strings of numbers and then recounting them back in reverse order. I would be concerned that my supremacy at this feat might have single-handedly skewed the results, except that I was also completely inept at mentally rotating 3D images, and even worse at thinking of words beginning with a certain letter under pressure of time constraints.

"Aadvark ... Ambulance ... Animal ... ... ... I said Aardvark ..."

The process of being MRI scanned was also fun, although I suffered fairly extreme vertigo once the machine got going, and had to fight mightily not to fall asleep.

Part of the scanning also involved undertaking tests of reaction time while in the machine, via a very basic visual display and some hand-held triggers, and even though I knew from my work that the test was designed to frustrate, I still felt terribly guilty that I wasn't able to do the impossible feat I was being instructed to do. Would the whole study fall apart because I couldn't fire off buttons fast enough?

Turns out no.

And what of my scan? Take a gander:

In conclusion: taking part in research is fun! Oh, and something about ageing.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Book review: The Newton Letter - John Banville (1982)

There are writers who are so good that I find it a relief to read their work, because my petty jealousies simply fall aside, like blades of grass before a Massey Ferguson.

Banville is one of them. He's a writer whose style is what I think of as writerly, a gobsmackingly inadequate term I know but one I haven't yet bettered. What I mean by it is that way certain writers have of trying to be, I guess, literary, by going overboard in selecting unusual words, overusing metaphor, or shoehorning in observations that could only be made by someone with too much time on their hands, and probably too big a trust fund (see what I mean by petty jealousies?).

But with Banville it's different, because although these elements are all present, they all serve the purpose they're supposed to, which is to describe or illuminate something better than any alternative could. I can best illustrate with a few examples:

'I could clearly hear the frequent cataclysms of the upstairs lavatory...'

'Receding from me, she took on the high definition of a figure seen through the wrong end of a telescope, fixed, tiny, complete in every detail.'

'It was an eighteenth century day, windswept and bright, the distances all small and sharply defined, as if painted on porcelain.'

'Is there anywhere more cloyingly intimate than the atmosphere of other people's bedrooms?'

Exquisite. Or so I think, anyway. If the above selections did nothing for you, then I wouldn't advise that you read The Newton Letter. Because for me it's a four-star book, but mostly because of Banville's way with words at the micro scale. At the macro scale I was disappointed that (I'm giving away no more than the blurb itself here) the protagonist fails to see what's under his nose as he bumbles along until the book is almost over, as for me this meant that themes were no more than hinted at, rather than being explored in depth.

I think that was even the intention: to tackle something obliquely and slightly, just glancing off it as a first pass, but personally I'm not sure there's much point in such an endeavour - or at least not if that pass is as oblique as it was here.

Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed Banville's deft treatment of this faintly Gothic short story.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Book review: The 32 Stops - Danny Dorling (2013)

This is the second of the two books I bought from Penguin's set of twelve celebrating 150 years of London Underground. They're pretty little things. The other one I bought was A History of Captalism According to the Jubilee Line, which I very much enjoyed.

The 32 Stops is based around an unusual concept. Dorling takes you on a journey from west to east along the Central Line, but without actually descending underground; instead he character-hops a waking day at half-hourly intervals, giving you a few minutes with each person.
This he does using a wealth of real-life sources and statistics to present a snapshot of what life is actually like for people living beside that part of the Line. It's fact-based fiction as social commentary, played out along one of the city's main arteries.

It's an ingenious way of communicating a selection of socioeconomic statistics. I like a good geek out as much as the next blogger, but this is the first time I've ever put a book on this sort of stuff to the top of my reading list. A clever ploy.

And Dorling does a surprisingly good job of giving each new character or set of characters fairly unique circumstances. He is a Professor after all, not a novelist, and his characterisation is admirable, even if the writing itself is just a touch clunky at times.

It does get a little bit samey after a while though, as each inhabitation is too brief to delve deeply into the individual's circumstances. Wisely there's a non-fictional recap every four stops or so to tie together the disparate tales into a coherent thread, but it's still only a surface glimpse of the different layers.

Another minor complaint is that I found Dorling's politics took ever so slightly too forward a seat: the characters on the less enviable sides of the median lines are much more sympathetic than those on the other sides. That might be inevitable - I don't know how I would go about instilling sympathy for a dozen different well-to-do characters; you can't give them all cancer - but it was a weakness for me all the same.

(I suppose it's predictable that Dorling would be a lefty.  I wonder whether there are any conservative 'quantitative social geographers' out there?)

It's also a surprisingly depressing read. Real life, with its massive inequality and commonplace deprivation, dictates that many of the characters will be in difficult circumstances, but the bleakness is fairly unrelenting. Dorling also adds a further layer of complexity to the book by incrementally increasing the characters' age at each stop, so that a lifetime as well as a day is experienced across the journey as a whole. Although this is again ingenious, it amounts to an inexorable ride towards death through a multitude of lives filled with little more than constant worries about money and children. That is, it's a bit too realistic to be enjoyable as well as informative.

Still, overall The 32 Stops is an impressive accomplishment, and a credit to Penguin's bravery and powers of selection.

As I said, it's a lovely volume, but in case you don't like to fill your shelves with things both lovely and edifying, the thorough and at times rather witty notes include a link to a website currently under construction that looks as though it will soon provide an equivalent experience online. It too is already looking very snazzy:

I think I might buy more of the books though, personally.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A bucket list fit only for the bin

Did you see this Telegraph story about a list of 50 things to do before you die?

Apparently it comes from a - presumably new - study, although the story doesn't provide a link or name any of the researchers.

Anyway, I don't know which I find more depressing - the list itself or the fact that supposedly the average person has only done 8 of the things on it.

Hopefully the list is better worded or explained in the full study write-up - if there actually is one and not just a press release - than in the story, which doesn't bother to list any timescales for items such as "Stop worrying about money".

Have I at any point in my life to date stopped worrying about money? Yes, I think that particular worry has slipped my mind on at least one occasion. The time I banged my head on a cupboard last week for example - does that count?

How about: "Stop worrying what other people think" - does it count when you do this after five pints?

Or there's the ridiculously all-encompassing: "Take up a challenge".

What counts as a challenge? Finishing my cereal when I overestimate my hunger? Getting out of bed on a Monday? Reading this stupid list all the way to the end?

Excuse me while I "Go outside more" (than what?) to "Meet strangers".

Monday, 6 May 2013

Book review: Wireless, Charles Stross (2009)

More struggling with short stories on my part. Actually I'm struggling with all fiction at the moment. Of the ten books I read before Wireless, only 1 was fiction, and that was a holiday read.

I finished Wireless impressed with Stross, but not particularly impressed with the collection. I've now read a few of Stross's blog posts and I'm currently following him on Twitter, and I like the guy. He's clearly very smart, and that's evident from the stories themselves too. But I didn't get much out of some of them.

My favourite was Unwirer, written with Cory Doctorow. It's alt-history cyberpunk, and it's probably the most straightforwardly written of the bunch. It's one of those fictions that manages to convince you you're cool while you're reading it and smarter for doing so, even though in reality you're borderline useless.

Missile Gap, A Colder War, Down on the Farm and Palimpsest all have good stuff going for them - some combination of a great concept, extraordinary inventiveness, impressive scope, and Stross's way with telling, but also suffer from some combination of being tediously complex/obscure, having little characterisation, being too long and running out of steam, or being too short to fully develop.

The other four stories did nothing for me, and Trunk and Disorderly in particular was abject.

Throughout I kept thinking that I'd get on better with full-length Stross, and I finished with that same thought. I'd have to be selective about what I chose though, as some of the afterwords to the stories hint that a few of Stross's longer works might also entail some of the things that annoyed me here.

I actually found most of the afterwords more interesting than the stories themselves. There I go again, struggling with fiction.