“How We Got To Now” by Steven Johnson (2014)

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“Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert, the bleak impossibly dry landscape that marks the eastern edge of the Sahara.”

The march of progress rarely proceeds in a straight line. We take the technology of today – smartphones, the Internet, cars, even flushing toilets and electric light – for granted, never much giving any consideration for the things that our ancestors would have found remarkable. Sometimes it takes millennia for ideas to produce tangible results – rarely do changes happen overnight – and it often takes a lot of people to make something happen. Take your watch, for example. That’s not just the product of a watch scientist, or something like that. The fact that you have a reliable timepiece on your watch is thanks to people working in the fields of computing, electromechanics, chemistry, dynamics and astrology. Steven Johnson takes a look at some of the greatest innovations in human history in this astounding book, How We Got to Now.

Johnson explores the six inventions and discoveries that revolutionised humanity: glass, artificial refrigeration, sound recording, germ theory, clocks and the light bulb. Each of these innovations helped the human race progress in truly extraordinary ways, changing the world over and over again. Many of history’s best and brightest also show up here including Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Charles Babbage, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Galileo Galilei, as well as several others that time has unfairly forgotten such as Frederic Tudor who was the first person to transport ice to the Caribbean, or Charles Piazzi Smyth who all but invented flashbulb photography. While some of the stuff seems simple, there are some things brought up that I’d never really given much thought to but seem obvious in retrospect. For example, fire was pretty much the first human “invention”, or at least the process of creating fire. And yet, despite fire being a key source of heat and light, we didn’t manage to take control over cold temperatures until well into the Industrial Revolution, and there was little more advanced than a candle to help us see at night for millennia.

The book’s real beauty comes from the fact that Johnson reveals how certain technologies had ripple effects into other areas of humanity’s development. The discovery of germ theory would eventually lead to both Coronation Street and the bikini; it could be said that air conditioning led to the election of Donald Trump; the invention of the mirror allowed the Renaissance to happen and changed people’s ideas of their place in society; a swinging altar lamp in an Italian cathedral would begin a path that led to Sputnik; and radio would chart a course to both the civil rights movement and Hitler’s fascist regime. The book notes that many ideas come into existence at a certain time because it’s just time for them to exist. Often the same invention or discovery will be announced by several different people at the same time. Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb, but he helped perfect them, and Darwin was one of several scientists who had worked out evolution and natural selection within the same decade or two. New ideas spring from old ones. For example, a person living in 1650 can’t conceive a refrigerator because the associated technologies aren’t available, but once they are, it seems almost inevitable that it would happen.

Johnson appears to be a natural weaver of true stories, and the writing, while occasionally heavy on the science, never feels too out of reach for the layman. The tales are engaging, fascinating and the sort of thing that make you want to instantly go up to other people and say, “Did you know…?” Even things that you might at first think could be dull topics, such as the chlorination of swimming pools, or how fibre optics are made are incredibly interesting, given what they then led to. It’s a very interesting guide to the most important ideas in science, and I for one am incredibly enchanted.

And while only a little thing, one of my favourite discoveries was that Captain Birdseye was a real person – his first name was Clarence.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“This Is Going To Hurt” by Adam Kay (2017)

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“The decision to work in medicine is basically a version of the email you get in early October asking you to choose your menu options for the work Christmas party.”

Touch wood, I’ve never had much to do with hospitals personally. My family, on the other hand, have all had more than enough experience on my behalf. My dad had two hernias before he was thirty, my mother has apparently had every possible organ removed at this point (sometimes twice), my grandparents are all held together by metal, and when she was twelve, my sister’s leg fell off. (Ask me about that last one sometime; I’m not really even exaggerating.)

Adam Kay is a comedy writer and singer now, but for several years he was a doctor. His parents appear not to have forgiven him for changing. A couple of years ago, while the UK was undergoing massive trauma relating to the treatment of junior doctors under the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (possibly the only man who is also the rhyming slang for what he is), Kay dug out all the diaries he kept during the six years he spent on the wards, mostly in his role in obstetrics and gynecology.

The entries are sporadic, so I can only assume he has picked the most interesting ones, but my god do they deliver. Firstly, the book is absolutely hilarious. I worked with the public long enough to know that they can say the most ridiculous things, but apparently putting them in hospital turns their lack of sense off completely. From the man who complained he’d never found a condom big enough to fit him (because it turned out he was trying to fit his testicles into them as well as his penis), to the woman who claimed her breast pump was bugged and someone was spying on her, there rarely seems to be a week that goes by without something hilarious happening. Many stories straddle the border between hilarious and horrifying, such as the young man who managed to deglove his penis (degloving is exactly what it sounds like) to the woman who returned from a Caribbean holiday, having had so much sex and catching such a virulent strain of gonorrhea that she was “producing purulent monsoons from both her Trinidad and her Tobago”. The humour is undoubtedly black, there’s no question, but Kay has such a mesmerising way with language that even the most disgusting aspects of the job are somehow still a delight to read.

More importantly, however, Kay doesn’t shy away from the absolute horrors of the job. He is speaking out on behalf of all junior doctors who simply don’t have the time to do so. He makes no bones about the fact that, as a doctor, you will never leave your shift on time, you will have to cancel dates, weddings and holidays with a moment’s notice, and you’ll hardly ever be thanked, and certainly not paid a decent and fair wage. He talks to giving medicines to anorexics who have eaten more than him in the last twenty-four hours, or trying to reduce the blood pressure of people he has higher blood pressure than. He emphasies the strain the role puts on his relationships, both romantic and platonic, and how tiresome it is to be asked by friends and family at every social occasion, “Can you just have a look at this rash?” And yet, even these appalling circumstances are still discussed with humour.

But, naturally, this is sometimes life and death we’re talking about, and Kay knows full well when to roll back the laughter and be serious. He deals with some situations that many of us would find utterly unthinkable, and the final entry in his diaries is one of the most heartbreaking, harrowing things I have ever read, hammering home how much we should respect and praise our medical men and women. Indeed, it is the events of the final entry that cause him to quit.

Don’t let that put you off, though. It is a very important book, an expose on what it’s really like at the medical front line. It’s not all tweed elbow patches and rounds of golf in the afternoon. It’s being splattered with blood and other fluids on a daily basis, performing complicated surgeries when you haven’t slept in thirty hours, removing Kinder Eggs from vaginas, trying not to confuse the Punjabi words for “hemophiliac” and “hermaphrodite”, and being eternally short-staffed. I’ve even more respect for the NHS staff now than I did before and it’s vital we protect them. They are superheroes.

Everyone should read this book.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“After Man” by Dougal Dixon (1981)

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“During the period immediately before and during the Age of Man the principal large-scale grazers and browsers were the ungulates, the hoofed mammals.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs are amazingly interesting, the evolution of birds and mammals is fascinating, and it’s always cool to see all the weird twists and turns nature took to get us to where we are today. A lot of people seem to treat what exists now as the end point, apparently under the illusion that evolution stops here, and what we have will carry on for the rest of time. Dougal Dixon is not one of those people.

In his breathtaking book After Man, he envisions a world fifty million years after our own, where humanity has died out, taking with it most of the large mammals and familiar creatures of the time. In this new world, where tectonic plates have shifted the continents into unrecognisable forms, animals have done much the same. Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.

Rabbits have evolved and diversified into the rabbucks; deer-like creatures that now inhabit every major biome. They’ve been followed throughout by the predator rats, who have taken on the roles of the great carnivores of our age. Elsewhere, squirrels have become long and slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.

In the seas, the whales and dolphins are long gone, but fully aquatic and enormous descendants of penguins now fill those roles. Baboon relatives now stalk the plains of, what was, Africa, hunting and scavenging for meat. Rainforest pigs have developed trunks, one of the last cats, the striger, swings from tree branches like our gibbons, when a species of ant evolved to make its nests underwater, the anteater went aquatic and followed them. As usual, on isolated islands, evolution has particularly gone insane, in particular on the islands of Batavia, recently risen from the seas due to volcanic activity and now populated by bats who have evolved to fill every niche, from coastal waters and high branches, and also produced the terrifying night stalker, a one and a half metre tall predator with a curious arrangement of limbs.

The book is nothing, however, without the incredible intricate illustrations, that show the future animals in action, as well as in some more technical, scientific positions. Like all good nature works, we get to see them as real beings, not just stock images. Of course, these aren’t real animals. Not yet, at least. While we cannot predict with any certainty what creatures will survive us and how they will be further shaped, all of Dixon’s suggestions are based on a solid scientific grounding and while it’s not probable any of them will occur, it’s not impossible. He used this knowledge again in the wonderful TV series The Future is Wild, which took a similar premise of future evolution and is well worth a watch if you can find it.

All in all, a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking experiment in evolution.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“A Is For Arsenic” by Kathryn Harkup (2015)

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“The name ‘arsenic’ has become almost synonymous with poison – it could be argued that it represents the gold-standard of criminal poisoning.”

Do you ever find yourself reading a book or watching a film and there’s a character in it with an unusual job and you go, “I could do that”? It happens to me with alarming regularity, but it really kicked into effect with this book. I found myself wishing I could redo everything and have studied science for longer at school and gone on to be a toxicologist. Of course, I’m sure this desire will last only as long as it takes for this book to fade a little from my memory, but suffice to say at this moment, there’s a part of me that wants to dive back into education and switch from artistic pursuits to scientific ones.

My Agatha Christie obsession remained forefront as I delved into A is for Arsenic, which takes a look at a bunch of poisons and both describes how they work and how Christie used them in her stories. Not everyone knows that Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both wars, and it was here that she picked up all of her detailed knowledge on the world of poisons. The most common cause of death among her characters was poison, and she always did her best to ensure the science was correct. As Kathryn Harkup recounts here, it seems that most of the time she was spot on.

The fourteen poisons covered in the book are arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, ricin, strychnine, thallium and Veronal. They form a blend of very well known killers, and some that are downright obscure. For example, ricin and thallium were both unheard of as methods of murder before Christie wrote about them. However, it seems that sometimes her stories gave rise to ideas in the real world, and there’s been more than one killer caught because he had one of her books stashed away in his study. Conversely, on a few occasions people have been saved by recognising the symptoms of poisoning from reading a Christie novel. While there are some people who consider her detailed use of science to be damaging, her books are generally highly praised for their accuracy.

Each chapter studies a particular poison, giving details of where it can be obtained, how it was discovered, how exactly it kills, and whether there is an antidote. Among these, we also learn about real life cases involving the poison, and it all gets related back to one of Christie’s plots and how accurate she was. There are some surprising facts here, not only about the poisons, but about Christie herself, and we learn a little more about her scientific mind. The poisons are the real stars though, and it’s fascinating to learn about the very close relationship between morphine and heroin, quite how poisonous pure nicotine is, how best to mask the bitter taste of cyanide, and which poisons are still used today. Hemlock, for example, while being quite famous for its toxic qualities, hasn’t been recorded as being used to intentionally kill someone since the days of Socrates. Christie made use of it in Five Little Pigs, one of my favourites.

Although for the most part Harkup avoids sharing spoilers, there are a few present, but always headed with a warning to skip ahead if you don’t want to see “whodunnit”. Generally we aren’t told, but sometimes the solutions need to be explained to give an extra detail on how the poison is used within the story. For anyone with an interest in Christie’s work or toxicology (or ideally, like myself, both), this is a startlingly good read. If not inspiring me quite fully to become a toxicologist, I am at least inspired to return to the murder mystery I started writing. I believe there is some cyanide in a cocktail I need to sort out…

“Superfreakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2009)

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superfreak“Many of life’s decisions are hard.”

There are many questions in this life that still need an answer. We can turn to all manner of scientists and assorted experts to give us some of the answers, but sometimes the right answers are much harder to find than we may first think. It may be that we’re looking in all the wrong places, and applying the wrong rules. In some of those cases, it might be time to bring in the economists.

Superfreakonomics is the sequel to the popular Freakonomics, written by journalist Stephen Dubner and rogue economist Steven Levitt. Instead of looking at money and banking, the area you’d expect economists to deal primarily in, these guys tackle apply the rules of economics to everything else and see what they can come up with. The argument is, of course, that we might be getting the wrong answers because we’ve been asking the wrong questions.

This book covers such diverse topics as prostitution, global warming, altruism and whaling, exploring each with a strange, sideways glance and seeing what we can learn from one industry about another. Dubner and Levitt explain why a prostitute is like a shopping mall Santa, whether drunk driving is safer than drunk walking, how to track down suicide bombers using their bank accounts, how we can engineer the oceans to stop hurricanes, what Al Gore and volcanoes have in common, and whether people are willing to give up money they haven’t worked for to a total stranger.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter is about global warming. While studying different ways that it could be halted, the pair find out that, in truth, we might not even need to halt it. It might be completely normal. It might not even be happening at all, and our efforts to cool the planet down are actually doing the opposite. The book is actually packed with controversy, as they point out that children’s car seats might not actually be that effective, that the supposed witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder weren’t as useless as psychology textbooks like to make out, and that a sex change can affect your standing among your peers.

It’s a quick read, easy to digest and utterly fascinating throughout, packed with the sort of trivia it’s nice to have on hand to trot out at cocktail parties, even if most of it is about car crash victims and hand washing in hospitals. If you’re the sort of person who likes spotting the links between entirely unrelated things, then this is for you. If not, then come along anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

“The Book On The Bookshelf” by Henry Petroski (1999)

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bookshelf-book“My reading chair faces my bookshelves, and I see them every time I look up from the page.”

Although I started this blog in 2013, I started keeping track of what books I was reading at the beginning of the decade, in 2011. I read sixty-six books that first year, which feels paltry compared to the ninety-five I got through last year. But this book here is particularly special as this review marks the five hundredth book I’ve read this decade – so far. It feels impossible, and yet, it feels about right. I debated for a while about which book deserved the accolade of such a comfortable and pleasing round number, but there seemed to be only one real answer to that – a book about books.

More accurately, I suppose, Henry Petroski’s book is actually about something most people don’t even consider – bookshelves. Oh yes, books about stationery and fake languages now seem almost mainstream compared to this level of specificity. Here, Petroski is discussing the history of how humanity has stored its texts, from the earliest scrolls and clay tablets up until the modern era (well, 1999 anyway). He covers the evolution of books from scrolls and codices to the invention of the printing press, discusses how books were read in monasteries and what happened when they became more widely available to the general public, makes a study of studies and some of the world’s most famous libraries, as well as then discussing the engineering know-how required to build bookshelves that don’t sag, allow plenty of light to show off the books, and eventually developed wheels to make the most of the space. He ends with a look at how people treat books – with a particular look at bookmarks – and then the appendix lists a variety of ways to store your books, whether by author name, size, colour, order of purchase, enjoyment level or any other method.

Like a badly made bookshelf, it sags a little in the middle as the topic is fairly dry, but it’s full of enough hugely interesting facts to keep any bookworm going. One of the oddest things he discusses is that, well into the 1500s, books were stored with their spines facing inwards, and before that they would all be chained to the shelves so they couldn’t go missing. Petroski is clearly a man who loves books and seems to have a particular interest in their treatment throughout the centuries. Books have always held a kind of reverence, or so it seems, and people have spent a lot of time and money on ensuring the best way to store and display their libraries.

Obviously, given that the book was written in 1999, there is little in it about the development and proliferation of the Kindle and its ilk. At the time he was writing, it becomes clear that e-books are already in existence but in a very minor way, so he speculates a little on what may happen, suggesting that eventually bookshelves will have fewer and fewer books on them until they resemble the old carrels of the medieval period where a student would sit at a desk to read the book without having to move it. History moves in circles, of course. It would be interesting to see an update to this book and get Petroski’s take on these new developments.

It all made me very aware that my bookshelves are in little order. An author will have all their books clumped together, in general, though looking up I can see it’s untrue of Ben Aaronovitch and Patrick Ness immediately. Agatha Christie has a shelf all to herself, of course. I have one wall that is entirely bookshelves, as well as two more long shelves on another wall, a bookcase against a third, and then two more piles of books on my desk. Books now lay horizontally on top of their vertical colleagues who came first, old and new rub covers with one another, and everything’s a little bit too dusty as, as has always been the case, books are dust magnets. I haven’t counted in a while, but this lot coupled with the boxes in the attic add up to around one thousand books.

So, let’s raise a glass to this milestone of five hundred books, five hundred adventures and five hundred tales that have all had a hand in making me the man I am today. Here’s to the next five hundred.

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