Book Review: Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky (2016)

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

From Ada Lovelace to Wang Zhenyi: A Celebration of Women Scientists

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Blogging for Books.)

It’s made to believe
Women are the same as men;
Are you not convinced
Daughters can also be heroic?

– Wang Zhenyi

Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants.

If there’s a girl in your life who’s into science – be it astronomy, psychology, or paleontology; even just a little! we’re talking the teeniest, tiniest bit! – you need to introduce her to the work of Rachel Ignotofsky. A graphic artist/illustrator, Ignotofsky uses her art to “make learning exciting.” Her first book, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, is a mashup of her many passions: art, history, science, and feminism – namely, celebrating the many contributions (many of them overlooked by and even erased from history) women have made to their respective scientific fields. The result is a smart, inspirational book that’s both informative and lovely.

Ada Lovelace. Elizabeth Blackwell. Marie Curie. Rachel Carson. Jane Goodall. Some of the women profiled here have managed, against all odds, to claim their rightful places as household names. But have you heard of Wang Zhenyi, 18th century astronomer, mathematician, and poet? How about Mamie Pipps Clark, a psychologist and civil rights activist who, along with her husband, conducted the infamous (and devastating) Doll Experiment, thus helping to end segregation in public schools? Or Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Irish astrophysicist who discovered pulsars at the age of 24?

As if these achievements aren’t impressive enough on their own, consider that many of these women did so even when they were barred from higher education, prohibited from publishing papers, or even expected to obey their fathers and husbands, no matter the cost. (Prior to 1974, women couldn’t apply for a line of credit; abortion was not legalized until 1973, and even today it can be difficult for low-income women to access; and marital rape wasn’t recognized as a crime federally until 1993.)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Last of the Sandwalkers, Jay Hosler (2015)

Friday, April 10th, 2015

A Heroine Like No Other!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher.)

I find myself thinking about this hue-mon all of the time. I wonder if it ever thought about us?

Was there room in here for thoughts about beetles?

Did it ever wonder how some glow?

Or spray liquid fire?

Or dance on water?

Or drink fog?

Maybe someday, if a hue-mon reads this journal, it will help them appreciate all of the amazing little aliens living underfoot.

Lucy may “just” be a junior faculty member at Colepolis University – and a beetle, to boot – but she’s about to change the way her people view the world. Reluctantly granted funding by the scientific ministry, Lucy’s leading a team of five scientist-explorers out into the great unknown – the vast desert that lies beyond the oasis where their coconut tree grows. Colepolis is home, and all its beetle citizens know of the world – all its elite ruling class allows them to know – is contained within its borders. That is, until Lucy breaks with years of tradition and superstition, and insists on proving that the world is more complex and wonderful than they can possibly imagine.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College, Valerie Estelle Frankel, ed. (2013)

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Something for Everyone!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the editor’s invitation.)

Since the debut of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, the Harry Potter franchise has generated a wealth of scholarly research. “Aca-fans” – “those who participate in academic fandom” (page 1) – scrutinize, interrogate, and critique Harry Potter creations both official and unauthorized: from J.K. Rowling’s novels to the film adaptations and supporting websites, to fan-made works such as fan and slash fiction – all is fair game. Such discussions often focus on themes as diverse as literature, philosophy, psychology, history, gender studies, and the law. However, Harry Potter’s place in education is a topic that has, until now, been all but neglected – as some of the writers (most notably Elisabeth C. Gumnior, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject) in Teaching with Harry Potter: Essays on Classroom Wizardry from Elementary School to College are quick to point out.

The eighteen authors who contributed to this unique collection come from a variety of backgrounds; they are parents, teachers of middle and high school students, college professors, academics, and fans. Consequently, there’s a little something for everyone here. Common to the essays is a shared enthusiasm for Harry Potter and his ability to help educate the next generation. Composition, literature, creative writing, romance languages, medieval studies, modern history, theology, science: with a little creativity and effort, the lessons found in Harry Potter – especially useful as a “global cultural reference” (page 152) – can be integrated into almost any classroom.

1 – “From Hogwarts Academy to the Hero’s Journey,” Lana A. Whited – The author compares and contrasts her experiences teaching Harry Potter to two very different audiences: 10- to 13-year-old children enrolled in Hogwarts Academy, a week-long summer enrichment class, and college sophomore literature students. An enjoyable start to this anthology, I found myself wishing I was young enough to attend Hogwarts myself, what with its Care of Magical Creatures and Defense of the Dark Arts lessons. The course sometimes even hosts a Snape impersonator in the form of Dr. Powell, a chemistry professor who brews up marshmallows and ice cream! Meanwhile, the older students examine Harry’s growth in the context of Otto Rank’s stages of the hero’s saga and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey. The author concludes that there are two ways of “knowing” literature – by the head and by the heart – and you can sometimes achieve the former by beginning with the latter.

(More below the fold…)

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

HAPPY CARL SAGAN DAY!

Carl Sagan was a Professor of Astronomy and Space Science and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, but most of us know him as a Pulitzer Prize winning author, the creator of the groundbreaking PBS series, COSMOS, and a tireless advocate for science and reason.

Sagan was that rarest of individuals. He was a scientist and researcher who was also adept at communicating scientific ideas to the general public. He was an example of how to blend healthy skepticism with a child-like sense of wonder.  He was a teacher who routinely disproved the unfounded and often dangerous beliefs of his fellow humans without ever losing his belief in humankind.

Today, on what would have been his 78th birthday, thousands of people around the world are taking time out from their normal routine to pay tribute to Sagan, revisit his meaningful work, and revel in the cosmos he helped us discover and understand.

Check our Carl Sagan Day Event Calendar for activities near you!

How can you celebrate Sagan Day?

Whether you’re an independent skeptics group, an astronomy club, a science department, a researcher, a teacher, a student, or just a really big Sagan fan, there are plenty of ways to celebrate Sagan Day:

  • Host a COSMOS marathon—all 13 episodes are available for free at hulu.com.
  • Check out Sagan’s many books at your local library or bookstore using the thorough listings from WorldCat.org.
  • Enjoy the special collection of articles by or about Sagan, previously published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
  • Listen to Sagan’s last public address for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) as replayed on CFI’s podcast, Point of Inquiry: “Wonder and Skepticism.”
  • Listen to Ann Druyan, writer, producer, and widow of Sagan, discuss life with Carl, his outlook on life, and his famous Gifford Lectures, “The Varieties of Scientific Experience,” also on Point of Inquiry.
  • Host your own apple pie baking contest (from scratch, of course).
  • Dress like Carl for a day!
  • Refresh your skeptic skills with a review of Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit.
  • Invite your friends over and try to convince them you have a dragon in your garage.
  • Take in a star show at your local planetarium.
  • Snag a pair of these gorgeous Pale Blue Dot earrings and coasters from Surly Amy!
  • Learn everything there is to know about Voyager 1 and 2.
  • Remember how thrilled you were when you saw the first stunning images from Voyager and go revel in these gorgeous NASA Voyager galleries.
  • See where the Voyager probes are now! (Yes, incredibly, they are still working and sending back data from over 15 billion kilometers away.)
  • At the very least, seek out a dark sky, look UP, and reconnect with the grandeur of the cosmos.

Carl Sagan Day 2012 Commemorative Posters

This year’s Carl Sagan Day poster is a tribute to the Voyager Golden Record. The high-quality design is available online for FREE, so download the PDF and print as many posters as you like.

Additionally, the responses to last year’s poster were so positive we decided to modify it for this year and keep it available to fans and Sagan Day event organizers. Each of these 11×17 posters has the same basic design, but we made three versions, each featuring a different Sagan quote.

(via the Center for Inquiry)

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I seriously considered renaming this blog “star stuff,” but pretty much every incarnation of the domain is taken. Instead I think I might save it for next year’s Vegan MoFo theme, for reasons yet to be explained. Spoilers!

And speaking of, check out this MoJo interview with Phillip Pullman, who popped in to discuss his new book, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. FAIRY TALES AND PHILIP PULLMAN! Totally fangirling over here.

Scientists, Poets, Changemakers and Heroes (Volunteer Opportunities & Action Alerts)

Monday, October 26th, 2009

There are several “actionable items” – not quite action alerts, but rather opportunities for participation, if that makes sense – I’ve been meaning to share, but just haven’t had the time to blog about in depth. Rather than neglect these projects altogether, here’s a handy-dandy roundup. Please scan through each item and help out where you can; these virtual volunteer opportunities are perfect for activists who have more extra time than they do money!

1. Science

It really chaps my rotund hide when speciesists claim that animal advocates are “anti-science.” Being all diverse and stuff, I’m sure the animal rights and welfare movements are home to a fair share of science-averse humans, but for the most part, we’re hardly anti-science. On the contrary: many of us harness the power of scientific research to demonstrate that veganism is a healthier alternative to “meat” and dairy consumption; that nonhuman animals can experience complex thoughts and emotions; that our exploitation of nonhumans animals is both unnecessary and harmful; etc., etc., etc. (you get the idea). On the whole, I don’t think we’re any more anti-science than our omni counterparts.

Personally, I love science; once upon a time, I wanted to be a clinical psychologist, specializing in anthrozoology and world vegan (then vegetarian, but wev) domination. I still peruse research articles and scientific journals (of a social nature) on occasion, just for the fun of it. No, it’s not science per se that I take issue with. Rather, I object to the imprisonment, torture, killing and exploitation of sentient, non-consenting animals, usually for redundant and frivolous research.

So I’ve become increasingly interested in “vegan” science, particularly in supporting such endeavors whenever possible. For example, I would love to donate my body to science when I die. The thought of spending my “afterlife” rotting away on a body farm somewhere brings a smile to my face; doubly so if my remains can save a nonhuman animal from being birthed, tortured and killed in the name of science. Oooh, Dr. Brennan, pick me, pick me!

Anyhow, when I saw an ad for research volunteers in the latest issue of Best Friends magazine, I immediately fired off an email to Dr. Frank McMillan to see how I might help. He pointed me to five open surveys, all of which are related to studies he’s conducting at Best Friends (as described here):

Dr. Franklin McMillan has been the director of well-being studies at Best Friends since October 2007. As director of well-being studies, Dr. Frank assesses and studies the mental health and emotional well-being of animals who have endured hardship, adversity and psychological trauma. Through these studies, he hopes to learn what the effects of trauma are – the psychological injuries and scars – and how best to treat them in order to restore to these animals a life of enjoyment rather than one of fear and emotional distress.

He is currently conducting such studies on cats from the Great Kitty Rescue in Pahrump, Nevada – an institutionalized hoarding situation – and the fighting dogs taken from the estate of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick.

(More below the fold…)

The History Channel makes the case for VHEMT.

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

The History Channel - Life After People

Last January, The History Channel aired Life After People, a one-part documentary that imagined what a world suddenly absent humans might look like:

In the program, scientists and other experts speculate about how the Earth, animal life, and plant life might be like if, suddenly, humanity no longer existed, as well as the effect humanity’s disappearance might have on the artificial aspects of civilization. Speculation is based upon documented results of the sudden removal of humans from a geographical area and the possible results that would occur if humanity discontinues its maintenance of buildings and urban infrastructure.

The documentary features the gradual and post-apocalyptic disintegration of urban civilization in a time span of 10,000 years after humanity suddenly vanished. The hypotheses are depicted using CGI dramatizations of the possible fate of iconic structures and landmarks (i.e. the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Hoover Dam).

Having just received Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us for FSMas, I was super-psyched about the documentary (which aired as part of a block of similar programming, such as Last Days on Earth) – and Life After People did not disappoint. The graphics were amazing, and the time projections – from 1 to 10 days after our disappearance, to 1 to 10,000 years post-h. sapiens – were quite impressive. Perhaps most importantly, and much like The World Without Us, Life After People gave me great hope for the future – or rather, for a future without us. Many of humanity’s so-called “greatest achievements” will prove a small match for the forces of nature, particularly once we’re no longer around to beat nature back. Those species which we haven’t yet driven to extinction will be given a second chance, and the earth will regenerate, reclaiming the land and resources we’ve stolen from it.

As I wrote in a review of The World Without Us,

Environmentalists – indeed, any person [with a] modicum of decency – will be happy to know that much of what we’ve done to the Earth, can be quickly undone. With the exception of those species we’ve already managed to eradicate, many endangered and threatened animal species do stand a fighting chance in a world without us. Many of our “greatest accomplishments,” from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Hoover Dam, will eventually crumble without humans around to maintain them. Forests, grasslands, and jungles will recover lost ground, though native species will be forced into competition with exotic ones introduced by humans. Global warming will slow and the ozone layer will regain molecular equilibrium. Our most enduring legacies will be our most unnatural creations: nuclear waste, plastics, and petrochemicals. Hopefully a world without us will evolve microbes to digest the more than one billion pounds of plastic we’ve dumped into the environment since the late ‘50s. […]

Whether it happens tomorrow or in 900 million years – when our Sun enters a red giant phase and begins to expand and contract, thus heating the Earth and evaporating our surface water – we will disappear. In this regard, we’re no better than the great megafauna of the Holocene epoch – or the lowly cockroaches and rodents that congregate in our fragile urban areas. It’s not a question of if we will vanish, but when; perhaps we should make our exit a graceful one, taking no more of our fellow earthlings to the grave than we already have.

Call me a hopeless cynic if you’d like, but it’s worth noting that Life After People was the History Channel’s most-watched program ever, with an estimated 5.4 million viewers. Something resonated.

Anyhow, while flipping around the teevee this morning, I was happily surprised to stumble upon Episode 2 of Life After People: The Series. Apparently last year’s documentary proved so popular that the History Channel commissioned a 10-part mini-series:

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach (2008)

Monday, April 7th, 2008

It’s sex-ay (science) time!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Kegels and paraclitoridiennes and Thrillhammers, oh my!

Popular science writer Mary Roach is no stranger to the business of taboo-busting; her previous works, STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS and SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE are books one might hesitate to discuss in polite company. (The biology of “human soup” isn’t exactly acceptable dinner conversation, now, is it?) Lucky for us, Mary Roach* is a curious and intrepid soul who’s more than willing tread where many of us would rather not – and then pen a witty, sarcastically humorous account of her journey.

BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SCIENCE AND SEX is Ms. Roach’s latest foray into the dark nooks and crannies of the scientific community’s attic. Starting with the 1800s, the author details the history of scientific inquiries into human and animal sexuality. In its infancy, sexual research was awkward and, at times, nonsensical; as understanding of human biology increased, the field of sexual science evolved. Nowhere is this more evident than in science’s treatment of women and gender; whereas scientists once argued whether women could even have orgasms, they now quibble over the most efficient means of getting the ladyfolk there. Just as the development of sexual knowledge reflects the progression of science and the embrace of the scientific method, so too does it correspond to women’s liberation and gender equality. Thus, a history of sex studies is a history of science and social movements.

All is not meta with Ms. Roach, however. In fact, her delight seems to be in the details. While her discussion does focus on some overarching topics and themes – including the history of research into and knowledge of sexuality; female and male anatomy and psychology, including the similarities and differences between the genders; the physiology of sex, and how one goes about documenting it; and technology’s impact on sexuality – BONK is full of meandering tangents and interesting side notes. Though the asterisks are many, don’t skip a one. While a few are a bit extraneous even for me, some of the juiciest tidbits are in the side notes.**

BONK is a popular science book that’s suitable for both lay people and professionals alike. The science in BONK is presented in such a way that it’s accessible and engaging, yet it isn’t watered down, either. Ms. Roach has an engaging writing style and a biting sense of humor, making this a “science of sex” book quite unlike any other. At times sardonic, macabre and morbid, she just has a way of skewering sacred cows – she’ll show you precisely how the hot dog is made before cajoling you into taking a bite.**** Like many gourmet dishes, Ms. Roach’s brand of humor may not please every palate – but this doesn’t make it any less of a delicacy.

While I enjoyed the book immensely, I do have to offer a caveat. If you’re sensitive to images of animal suffering (more specifically, vivisection and factory farming), read BONK with caution. As with any “history of science” book, BONK contains scenes of gratuitous violence against animals. For example, one early study the author describes involved the decapitation of a female dog – while mating (!) – in order to study the mobility of the male’s semen. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, and while Ms. Roach is for the most part appropriately horrified, some of the more modern abuses are left unquestioned.

* Even the woman’s name tickles my fancy. “Mary Roach.” Roach clip, anyone?

** For example, I bet you didn’t know that perforated postal stamps are a low-tech way to determine whether a man is medically (as opposed to psychologically) impotent. Just wrap a roll around the package in question, and ship it off for overnight delivery. If the stamps are torn upon morning pickup, said package is in working (physical) order.***

*** The USPS both knows of and endorses the practice, FYI.

**** Much in the same manner she cajoled her husband into bonking in an MRI machine in the name of science. Or so one might assume.*****

***** Pants off to you, Ed!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

UCS – Congress Votes Wednesday on Censoring Science

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

The following is an excerpt from a recent Union of Concerned Scientists action alert:

Congress Votes Wednesday on Censoring Science

On issues from air quality to global warming, federal government scientific information is being censored, manipulated, and distorted and scientists are being muzzled. In an effort to limit this dangerous practice, Representative Brad Miller (D-NC) will introduce an amendment in the House Science Committee on Wednesday. The amendment would help prevent political interference in science at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which works on issues like global warming, weather predictions, and endangered species. Please call today and urge your representative, a member of the committee, to keep politics out of science by supporting the Miller amendment to Wednesday’s NOAA Organics legislation (H.R. 5450).

A list of talking points is available on their website.

Book Review: Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies?, Kenneth V. Iserson (2001)

Monday, July 25th, 2005

An Encyclopedic Overview of Death & Dying

five out of five stars

Of the many books on death and dying that I’ve read over the past six months, Kenneth Iserson’s “Death to Dust” is by far the most comprehensive and enjoyable of the bunch. Weighing in at over 800 pages, “Death to Dust” is truly an encyclopedic approach to the subject.

Iserson divides his discussion into fourteen chapters; the shortest is about eleven pages (the introduction), while the longest is a massive 80+ pages (the average chapter length is about 50 pages). He adeptly covers all aspects of death, dying, grief, mourning, and post-mortem activities and concerns. He discusses practical matters, such as how to arrange a funeral, bodily transport across state lines, embalming, funerary rituals and etiquette, cremation, and advance directives. Iserson even includes a helpful, ten-page “Body-disposal Instructions and Discussion Guide,” designed to help the living ease the inevitable burden their next of kin will face when they pass away.

However, “Death to Dust” is not simply a consumer guide. Although he does offer a wealth of practical information, he also launches into more esoteric and macabre discussions. Some chapters are certainly not for the faint of heart. If cannibalism, headhunting, corpse dismemberment, grave robbing, anatomical dissection, autopsies, or putrification give you the heebie-jeebies, read with caution! True to its encyclopedic nature, “Death to Dust” takes care to cover ALL aspects of death and dying – particularly the more unpleasant and morbid topics. Iserson approaches these subjects with a dry sense of humor. Although I thought that his witticisms spiced the book up and made his discussion more entertaining, some audiences might be taken aback by Iserson’s (sometimes) light tone.

It’s obvious that Iserson (or his editor!) spent a lot of time making the book easily navigable (an especially important detail in a book this size!). Each of the fourteen chapters is further sub-divided into lettered subsections (usually 25+ per chapter). The subsections each have their own heading and read like short articles, so that readers can easily browse through the book and skim over desired sections. The index and table of contents are also very detailed. Finally, Iserson has gone to great pains to cite every single reference he consulted while constructing the book – and there are many! The typical chapter has hundreds of footnotes, which are conveniently included at the end of each individual chapter.

For the macabre among us, if you buy just one book on death and dying this year, look no further – “Death to Dust” is it! Those looking to arrange for their own post-mortem plans might find the book helpful as well, although there are consumer guides designed specifically for advising individuals of wills, advance directives, organ donation, and corpse disposal (“Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love,” by Lisa Carlson, is an excellent place to start). I’m not sure I’d recommend “Death to Dust” to the newly bereaved, however; some of the subject matter might prove a bit upsetting. On the upside, it’s easy to skip over these sections altogether, as the book is very organized.

My only gripe: Iserson included WAY too many quotes from the self-proclaimed “poet-mortician,” Thomas Lynch – who, I have determined, is a gawd-awful poet with an exaggerated view of his own self-importance. I literally cringed every time Iserson included excerpts of his amateurish prose – it’s just that painful.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: When We Die : The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death, Cedric A. Mims (2000)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

An interesting – yet imperfect – overview of death & dying

three out of five stars

In “When We Die,” Biology Professor Cedric Mims provides a succinct overview of all things macabre. He touches upon standard death and dying subjects such as embalming, burial, cremation, organ donation, and bereavement, as well as more unusual topics, including cannibalism, cellular suicide, mummification, compostoriums, acid baths, and necrophilia. No stone is left unturned in his discussion of death, dying, and “the science, culture, and rituals of death.”

As much as I enjoyed “When We Die,” it was not without its flaws. For starters, it doesn’t seem as though the book was properly edited. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Mims is a BAD writer, but it could have been better. His misuse of commas, for instance, is atrocious. He also tends to have trouble transitioning between topics. Some of the awkwardness probably stems from the fact that Mims lives in England and spent some time in Australia and Africa. His phraseology can be clumsy and cumbersome, and I’m willing to bet that it’s due to cultural differences. The book was initially released in the UK, and it doesn’t appear to have been modified for its US edition. Spelling and word usage differences remain intact, when his editor really should have changed them in the US version to reflect his new audience.

Additionally, I found some of his statements to be questionable, while other claims were just plain incorrect. For example, he says that $6 million, “spent over 10 years,” is enough to clean all the water in “third world countries” and eliminate deaths due to diarrhea (that estimate seems awfully low, no?). He also refers to the 1978 Jonestown massacre as a “mass suicide” (despite overwhelming evidence that many members were murdered outright), and makes the dubious claim that, “in all cases [of sensational homicides] the murderer is mentally deranged.” Taken together, these errors made me question the rest of the information Mims included in “When We Die.” Though he does list 4+ pages of references, he does not use footnotes in his text – so it’s usually impossible to tell what information he pulled from which sources.

Nonetheless, “When We Die” is a fascinating and largely enjoyable read. Serious scholars may want to pass this one by, but it’s an interesting and manageable discussion for laypeople.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)