March 11, 2012

The Wild Life of Our Bodies

The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are TodayThe Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today by Rob Dunn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightful exploration of research around the evolution of the human body contrasted with how technological evolution maybe causing humans more harm than good. The book looks at the role of parasites in our gut, a new line of thinking about the purpose of the appendix, the impact of the introduction of agriculture, how our flight or fight response maybe harming us, and why humans lack hair. For each theme the author weaves a narrative of current research, his own observations, and anecdotal stories written with cliff hanger transitions. I found the first half of the book covering parasites, the appendix, and agriculture to be much better written and cohesive than the latter half which seemed to focus more on stories than science and didn't fit the wild life premise as well. Overall the writing is enjoyable, approachable, and presents many new theories and thoughts about our growing understanding of the evolution of the human body.

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My notes:

  • The clean living revolution robbed us of helpful qualities and maybe making us worse [xiv]
  • Tim White discovered Ardi a 4.4 million year old human-like fossil [6]
  • We are human because we chose to try to take control [8]
  • 400 named diseases common to humans [20]
  • Pronghorn's speed due to extinct American cheetah [28]
  • We live in a time of ghosts [29]
  • Reintroduced gut parasites led to better patients [38]
  • Immune system has two types one for viruses and bacteria and the other nematodes and parasites [41]
  • Humans co-evolved to need parasites [44]
  • Our bodies and immune system evolved to work best when other species lived on us [57]
  • Medical research often finds something that helps before understanding how [63]
  • 1000 plus microbes in gut that we have been unable to culture outside of it [69]
  • Microbes in your gut help produce 30% more calories [80]
  • Appendix filled with immune tissues, antibodies, and bacteria [97]
  • Appendix house for bacteria to recolonize gut [98]
  • IgA helps gut bacteria grow 15x faster [103]
  • Selective sweeps favoring good genes where others die off [121]
  • 9-10K years ago humans gene for lactose production was key [123]
  • 75% of consumed food comes from 6 plants and 1 animal [128]
  • 25% lactose intolerant, 40-50%lactose challenged [132]
  • fat=stay warm, keep from starving [134]
  • 1/3 of all languages in Africa [137]
  • Humans have long been the prey [147]
  • Natural birth at night most common [151]
  • Anxiety disorder caused by misplaced fear [161]
  • Prey respond to predator's weakness [173]
  • Better vision tied to area with more snakes [175]
  • Sweet, salty, bitter, umami (savory), sour taste buds [183]
  • Body has infinite demand for sugar [188]
  • Taste buds irrational in modern context [190]
  • Taste bugs in gut bypass conscious brain [194]
  • Skin variety outgrowth of loss of hair [205]
  • Sedentary lifestyle of humans led to change in hair [211]
  • Malaria and sickle cell anemia or fava bean anemia [215]
  • Social and sedentary increase disease risk [220]
  • Correlation between disease areas and xenophobia [224]
  • Humans farm away from where they live [245]
  • Cliff trees oldest on earth [254]
  • Half of city life comes from cliffs [256]

Tags: books mos

October 22, 2011

The Mathematics of Life

The Mathematics of LifeThe Mathematics of Life by Ian Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book explores the author's premise that mathematics is the sixth revolution to impact biology following those of the microscope, classification, evolution, genetics, and DNA's structure. The first third of the book examines the history of each of those revolutions and the impact on biology. The remainder of the book consists of vignettes about the interplay between mathematics and biology. The breadth of material exposed me to fascinating tidbits about animal patterns, evolutionary niches, and general biology. Alas the chapters are loosely coupled and the drive to prove that mathematics is the sixth revolution for biology is barely mentioned at all. In fact the book concludes that "I doubt that mathematics will ever dominate biological thinking in the way it now does for physics, but its role is becoming essential." While I found the book enjoyable to read it's lack of depth or cohesiveness left me wanting more.

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Some notes from my reading:

  • Prokaryotes reproduce by splitting into two copies: this process is called binary fission. Eukaryotes also split into two copies, but because such cells are more complex, their division is also more complex. Additionally, eukaryotes are usually capable of sexual reproduction, ... [84]

  • The relationship between genes and organisms is a feedback loop: genes affect organisms via development; organisms affect genes (in the next generation) via natural selection. [103]

  • Science is seldom about direct observation: it is nearly always about indirect inference. [221]

  • But sometimes [evolution] levers them apart, because several distinct survival strategies can exploit the environment more effectively than one. [238]

  • Now the program can replicate the robot when the robot obeys the instructions, and the robot can replicate the program by copying it but not obeying the instructions. [282]

  • This is one of several ways in which 'deterministic' and 'predictable' differ in practice, despite being essentially the same in principle. [285]

  • Cohen distinguished these two types of feature, calling them universals [likely to be found in alien life forms] and parochials [merely accidents of evolution]. ... Five digits on a hand is a parochial, but appendages that can manipulate objects are universal. [295]

Tags: books mos

March 28, 2011

A Spring without Bees

A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food SupplyA Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply by Michael Schacker

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I couldn't finish this book. It reads like a repetitive alarmist rant. When the author started making mostly unsubstantiated conspiracy theory allegations against higher education and American media I hit my limit. Coming into the subject of bees and colony collapse disorder (CCD) with little knowledge of either I was hoping for an introduction to bees, CCD, and an unbiased exploration of what might be leading to it. I found none in this book. While there maybe truth in some of what the author says it is hidden among a writing tone and style that makes me distrust him more than the supposedly corrupt institutions he continually lambasts.

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Tags: avoid books mos

February 13, 2011

Plastic Fantastic

Plastic FantasticPlastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book chronicles the multiple year fraud perpetrated by Jan Hendrik Schon in the scientific community concerning his research around various new materials for transistors and nanotechnology. Unfortunately I found the bias of the author that the scientific method doesn't work as stated in the introduction tainted the rest of the material. Instead of laying out the facts and letting the reader draw their own conclusions about the scope and validity of the scientific method the book at times feels like a rant against it. The mixed chronological order that some of the material is presented in makes the timeline hard to follow. While I found the overall story interesting I suspect I'd appreciate another authors take on it more.

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Tags: books mos science

October 26, 2010

The Shape of Inner Space

The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe's Hidden DimensionsThe Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions by Shing-Tung Yau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An approachable book covering a range of complex and compelling topics in string theory and geometry. The book focuses on discoveries in geometry from the perspective of Shing-Tung Yau, a Fields Medal winner, and how the growing collaboration between mathematicians and physicists is advancing both fields. I didn't come away with a deep understanding of the topics covered in the book, I suspect a second or third reading would be required, but did come to appreciate the problems now being tackled. A worthwhile read if the topic is of interest.

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Tags: books mos

March 30, 2010

Museum of Science Book Group

The recently defunct Museum of Science Book Club for the Curious has risen from the ashes in a new location but with the same mission. Now hosted at the Cambridge Innovation Center the next meeting will be May 13, 2010 for a discussion of
From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll. Full details can be found at the Museum of Science Book Group Google Group Site.

Tags: books links mos

May 31, 2006


Tonight the MoS held an event called Face-to-Face Digital: Fusing the Physical World with the Digital World. The event centered around the nTag Wave produced by nTag. It is an intelligent badge that lets you optionally track other event attendees that you talked with and additionally exchange contact information. This is the second time that nTag has sponsored such a program at the MoS, the first being three years ago at the 2003 S-Games.

Based on pictures that I saw from the previous event the physical design of the system has changed dramatically from a puck based block to a more candy bar phone like format. The PDF linked to above has an example shot of the device. You track who you have talked with by holding the two devices up next to each other at which point you get a visual indication that they are exchanging information. Optionally during this process you can also hold down a button on the base of the unit which will initiate an exchange of contact information. This process requires both parties to be holding down the button. I found that to be a nice aspect. Requiring active participation from both users prevents accidental contact sharing.

During a presentation at the end the devices were also able to be used in an active poll of the audience with the results being reflected on the projection in real time. Additionally the device had a pre-canned survey and the ability to select other about me information like your favorite cuisine, city, sports team etc. If you synced up with another attendee and had a shared interest the devices would reflect that information on the screen.

Overall I was mostly disappointed with the device. The first device I got had a faulty screen which prevented using the included pick (aka stylist) to type on the virtual keyboard. The only way to enter information on the device for things like the name of the company you work for. My second unit worked better until it froze while trying to vote in one of the polls during the presentation.

When it was working, the device responded extremely sluggishly taking multiple seconds to move up and down the simple menu trees. The screen had constant display artifacts appear on it while refreshing the screen. The visual indicators for navigation were very subtle and sometimes misleading, along the lines of a bar at the bottom of the screen indicating that there was more information when in fact all that was there was a blank line. I couldn't get the pick to work in all situations. It only seemed to be active on the virtual keyboard, preventing me (when I already had it in hand) of using it to select an option in a menu.

The UI for menus didn't give any indication that some were for selecting only a single item while others allowed the selection of multiple items. When you aren't holding the device up it goes to sleep. If you happen to be in the middle of something when it goes to sleep, your current location and work are lost. This was most annoying when I was 4 or 5 levels deep in menus. Lastly the device seems to be WiFi based and was extremely slow. After I got my second unit it took a good 10 minutes for it to synchronize and even show the most basic menus that would let me finish filling out my interests. Ignoring the fact that the questions I had already filled out on the other unit were not saved.

While this technology is still in the development stages, I'm shocked to think that in three years a more stable product couldn't have been developed. I'd estimate 90% of the features of this device could be easily implemented on a standard Palm device. The overall form factor is about the same. While such an implementation would have a higher per unit cost, I'd rather see a product that worked fast and reliably and then focus on reducing the per unit cost.

Tags: innovators lecture mos ntag