Category Archives: books

what about 2007 and this blog

Well pretty much the same as last year…. (as a reference to the past, a blog is unbeatable)
Photography has nearly taken over this blog, i.e. my venture into digital photography has been very enjoyable. My D200 and the bulky but good 17-55mm zoom have served me well. The “success” of the photography part of my blog and my busy professional activities (that are NOT the subject of this blog…) made me nearly abandon the text part but i will try to reinvigorate that part if only for my own sanity as i have such a huge backlog of books that i absolutely positively have to read….
My photography plans include color calibration, (finally) buying a tripod (Bruges by night), and i want to have a small number of shots printed with the diasec technique. All advise on these topics is welcome!

happy 2007!

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

0375760393
What a nice book from a good storyteller. And what is all about? Plants as protagonists in an evolutionary struggle with the rest of the world, and that world includes us. Apples, tulips, cannabis and the potato are the main characters of this tale. This thoroughly researched book will be informative for anybody who cares about plants: the avid gardener, he who likes apple pie, anybody who ever purchased or received flowers, those seeking pleasure out of plants or know the taste of French fries…. in short everybody. The amount of scientific background you have does not matter: Michael Pollan, i repeat, is an extraordinarily good story teller/science writer.

I will not try to summarize the content, i will instead focus on an important point where i disagree with the author. But do not let this criticism deter you from from reading this marvelous little book.

Anything we do is risky at some point, but if you stay in bed all day you can eliminate a lot of these risk, you will not take part in a car accident or make a fall on the staircase…. You get the point. I am not advocating staying in bed all day, I am simply stating the obvious that living is pretty much an continuous exercise in “risk management”. What I want to criticize is the underlaying risk analysis in the evaluations Michael Pollan makes, consciously or not. Lets compare the risks about biotech foods and cannabis.

The state of “modern” agriculture is indeed frightening and grave questions about its sustainability are legitimately raised. In the end however, after some trepidation, Pollan chooses not to eat the biotech potato. “I suddenly understood with perfect clarity why Monsanto does not want to label it genetically modified food. ” No such clarity for me though. No real arguments discussed to turn down the biotech potato, beyond the familiar “you never know” argument. The monarch butterfly problem is mentioned but subsequent research, published before the release of this book, has shown this issue to be much much smaller than originally reported. Allergies have and are carefully considered but biotech may actually be a solution for certain allergies. Of course we, in west, can (still) afford to use the “you never know” argument. But not everybody is so lucky. We should of course be very cautious and reduce potential risks but before making up your mind about biotech foods I suggest you read this by Per Pinstrup-Andersen or this brief statement endorsed by numerous smart people.

No such caution about marijuana. Pollan points out to the (dangerous) fact that the marijuana of his hippie years has evolved (yes the appropriate word) into a very much more potent thing. But what about the growing evidence indicating that marijuana can precipitate very serious mental illness such as schizophrenia. Before the publication of this book the evidence was not yet very strong but still worth mentioning. In the mean time the evidence has become quite extensive. I am not advocating or justifying the ridiculous police behavior so well described in this book though. We should instead talk about these risk, tell people what schizophrenia is. Get them to understand what kind of stuff the brain is made of and making the analogy with a wiring closet where it is not smart to throwing in iron powder… Want to know more? This cutting edge interview of Dr. Murray is also worth reading.

Maybe Michael Pollan should update his book as it is a perfect launch pad to become informed about these important topics, issues with life-saving potential!

I Wish I’d made you angry earlier by Max Perutz

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This is a collection of essays by Max Perutz, a nobel prize winning crystallographer. My expectations were high as I previously enjoyed essay collections by other scientists such as Dawkins, Sagan or Weinberg . And I was not disappointed, this is a most splendid book. (disclaimer: as I would not mind being a macromolecular crystallographer myself, I am surely biased.)

The subtitle of the book is “Essays on Science, Scientists, and Humanity” and the first chapter is a case in point: Fritz Haber. This extremely talented and dedicated chemist was essential in the development of both synthetic fertilizer and the poisons gases of world war one. From feeding the world to chemical warfare. Let’s add that Haber also had a hand in the development of agricultural pesticides that were later used against his fellow Jews, although he never knew about that: he had to flee Germany in 1933 and died a year later. Haber, friend or foe? Another essay in the same broad category is the one about Andrei Sakharov: from nuclear weapons design to human rights and once more there is no easy answer, friend or foe?

You should not get the impression that Perutz recast all problems as eternal questions, never to be answered, only to be deconstructed and given a new contextual interpretation. All this is clear from a scathing review of a book about Louis Pasteur (lets not honour that book with an URL!).

Some scientists of rather unpleasant character make an appearance, such as the brilliant but lazy Leo Szilard who is also a main character in “The making of the atomic bomb” a superb book by Richard Rhodes. The story of the flamboyant Szent-Gyorgyri, of vitamine C fame, is also instructing: great discoveries and courageous political actions do not immunize against subsequent megalomania.
Some people deserve more widespread recognition and I learned a lot about Jacques Monod. I should read his autobiography and most certainly will read his most famous book.

This book contains a lucid description of the discovery of ‘first’ secret of live, the DNA double-helix by Watson and Crick. Perutz worked in the same lab and he lucidly delineates the complementarily of Watson and Crick. This essay alone justifies buying this book, and it is an essential add-on to story as told by Watson himself in his most readable Double Helix.

Who else makes an appearance? Lise Meitner, Dorothy Hodgkin, Linus Pauling, Werner Heisenberg, and Peter Medawar. But also, unknown to me, I am ashamed to admit, Gerhard Domagk who developed Pronstosil, the first sulphonamide antibiotic.

All elements of the books subtitle have an autobiographical component: Perutz as an enemy alien deported from Britain in the beginning of ww2, the anger of finding out about the alpha-helical model by Pauling ad Corey, and the subtleties of the Hemoglobin protein structure, the work that earned him a nobel prize (the second secret of life).

This is not all, there are more treasures in this book, hurry… before it is out of print. In the mean time you can learn something from listening to an interview with Perutz by clicking here.

what about 2006 and this blog?

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This blog started as an intramural experiment, and if only in updating my knowledge of current web-technology it is a small success (you probably did not notice but a recent thorough cleaning up of my wordpress template finally made the footer appear at the bottom….).

So why continue? I guess that currently it is mainly the photo-part of my blog that motivates me. The interaction with other photo-bloggers such as Chris positively surprised me (be sure to also check out the photoblogs by the other people that comment on my photoblog). There will be more photography in 2006, probably much more. After much hesitation, and a bit of this , and with the positive support of my wife (not given to all photographers when you read the fora about photography gear), I ordered my Nikon D200! This will make things much less laborious, resulting in more photos, and I hope, better ones…

But I have a backlog of books I read on which I cannot help expressing my opinion about. So I agree with Ben Casnocha that I blog because “it clarifies my thinking.”.

I summarize: more and better photos and books (or books and photos).

Happy 2006!

bookswelike

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As noted previously, the internet is alive and kicking! Although it’s been around for a while, it is time to check this one out: Books We Like. Some of its features are similar to what makes browsing through the amazon book-store so much fun. You can make a profile with your recommendations and notes on books. When a lot of people do this something interesting emerges! Similar but potentially more direct and useful compared to the recommendations, wish lists and listmania over at amazon.com.