Posted by: Green Knight | November 17, 2011

Reading List

First of all, this is American Education Week.  It’s never too late to learn stuff, even if you’re not in school.  I’m looking at working on some post-grad studies myself.  Why?  Because I’m a perpetual student.  I studied chemistry at UCLA from 1973-75, then archaeology/anthro and astronomy at a little college in the redwoods from 1975-76, and the earth sciences and secondary education here in the midwest from 1984-87.  I’m hoping to skip the master’s and work straight towards the Ph.D., but being the interdisciplinary type that I am, I’d like to end up with something that will allow me to teach the history of science, philosophy of science, and something I invented last night, philosophy of safety, sort of a post-grad curriculum for people that took all the EPA, OSHA, DOT, DOE, and MSHA classes I’ve taught for the past 20 years.  Being the only specialist in your field can have its advantages, as Farley Mowat discussed at the beginning of Never Cry Wolf.

Speaking of books, I’d like to recommend three that I just finished.  I am one of those people who reads constantly; if I’m on the bus or having lunch by myself and I don’t have anything to read, I get jittery.  If I’m at the park, I enjoy nature, and if I’m with company, I enjoy the company, but if I’m in a waiting-room, or sitting around in an otherwise unstimulating environment, I need a BOOK.  I vary my reading so as not to get compartmentalized, and alternate topics so I don’t get in a rut: cosmology and weird physics, ancient history, outrageously manic fiction by people like Tim Dorsey or Christopher Moore, historical mysteries, hard sci-fi, I get all over the map.  I tried out for the TV show Jeopardy! once, but got bumped for not knowing a pop-culture MTV-type question (now, whenever I hear that damned song, I grit my teeth).  Same in the game of Trivial Pursuit; I’m pretty competent in any category but sports, which is a topic that doesn’t interest me at all.

Two of the books on today’s list are by a Brit named Joel Levy, a prolific author whose scope I can relate to and whose success I envy.  The first is called Scientific Feuds: From Galileo to the Human Genome Project, from last year.  It’s got everything!  If you look back to my post on environmental determinism here, it even details the bitter, drawn-out feud between Edward Drinker Cope (I’m on his side) and Othniel Marsh, in what was known as the “Bone Wars.”  Fossil-hunting was serious business, and still is.

The second one from Mr. Levy, from the current year, is Poison: an Illustrated History.  As someone who teaches toxicology and hazardous waste cleanup, I grab and read everything I can on this stuff.  There are some pretty cool books for mystery writers on poisons, by Serita Stevens among others, but this one ties in the biology or mineralogy, the history, and the anthropology involved.  Joel writes with an invigorating style that keeps you reading, and his section headings in both works are pun-laden and worthy of ME.  Despite having studied this field for longer than I care to contemplate, I learned new stuff, hooray!  Science is about constantly trying to improve our explanations about how Nature works, and Mother Nature is always outfoxing us.  It’s an enjoyable pursuit, once you realize that there are never any final answers, only slightly better ones all the time.  I think I mentioned the asymptotic process thing in a previous post.

The third book is a bit heavier, not in weight but in content.  It’s The Viral Storm: the Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, by Nathan Wolfe. also copyright 2011.  I envy this guy…born in Detroit, educated at Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, and now teaches at Stanford and has his own virus-hunting outfit.  Not bad for a kid from the Motor City.  It has shades of Richard Preston’s 1994 book, The Hot Zone, which was about the Ebola virus and was the basis for the fiction film “Outbreak.”  Interestingly, I’m a Facebook friend of Preston’s brother Douglas, who, with Lincoln Child, writes the amazingly mesmerizing thrillers featuring the cryptic Agent Pendergast of the FBI.  Richard Preston also has a recent (2007) nonfiction book called The Wild Trees, about some intrepid tree-climbers who discovered a previously-unknown entire ecosystem in the canopy of the coastal redwoods.  Makes me miss home quite a bit.

Also, the book is reminiscent of my pal Mark Pendergrast’s one on the CDC microbe-hunters, Inside the Outbreaks, 2010, which I’ve mentioned here before.  Pendergast, Pendergrast, I am aghast at the synchronicity.  I recommend Mark’s book highly, as a companion piece to this one…then he might be able to make good on that debt from the drunken poker game at Hussong’s in Ensenada back in the ’70s (I AM JUST KIDDING!  I haven’t met Mark in person yet, but I’d like to someday; he has a kind heart and a fierce brain, just like me.)

At any rate, Wolfe’s book is everything I like in a work of its kind: readable by the layperson, engaging, well-paced, alternating alarm with reassurance, and offering rational suggestions for the future.  I also like that it finally puts to rest the origins of HIV, which has been the subject of conspiracy theories for too long.  We know what it is now, and thus we need to get on the stick and address the problem.  I got in trouble in 1986 while doing student-teaching in a local high school for saying that AIDS came from chimpanzees…cost me my teaching degree.  Turns out I was right.  Ah, well, just another scientific feud.

But all of the above scribblers are worth a look.  I like style in presenting science, because otherwise it falls by the wayside in everyday life.  Same thing with philosophy.  The average lunkhead isn’t going to pay attention unless you make it palatable in some way or other.  I like to joke that I’m the illegitimate love-child of Carl Sagan and Alan Watts.  I try to balance the sciences and the humanities, a total yin-yang proposition, but as C.P. Snow pointed out in 1959…well, i must quote Joel Levy here, from Scientific Feuds:

In 1959, Snow delivered a lecture warning that the two ‘cultures’ of science and the humanities were drawing apart.  Where before many people had a solid background in both worlds, he argued, changes in education and society were leading to increasing polarization of the two worlds and ignorance of one another.  In particular, he accused those in the humanities culture of wilful ignorance and chauvinism against science.  While many, then and now, argued that Snow’s thesis was mistaken or overstated, the evidence appears to show that he was prescient to a degree, and that many of his worst fears have become realized.”

I wish I’d read that before the seminar a few weeks ago, but I’m copying it to those who were there.

So, hey-ho, do what you can for education during education week.  Encourage literacy, or something.



  1. I just finished the biography of Steve Jobs. Interesting story of success of a college drop out. Highly recommend. HIs two cultures were technology and the humanities. Similar to C.P.Snow!

    • Always great to hear from ya, Dr. Jim! A couple of old roommates of mine from the ’70s worked for Nolan Bushnell, creator of Pong and Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater. Those were the days.

  2. Reading and enjoying, ‘How to Cool the Planet’ by Jeff Goodell. Feel like I’m reading Jules Verne again!

    • Twiggy, that’s a good one. The best minds on the planet are coming up with ideas to keep it cool.

  3. Do you remember the minor flap a few months ago when some conservative prof and some columnists wondered why there is no “easily accessible” liberal canon? They said that the conservative canon is easy to find — Ayn Rand. But why nothing for conservatives?

    I thought at the time that most liberals I know read a lot of science. The books are out there — and these are some of them.

    Problem is that liberals read a lot more, and a lot more reality, than conservatives.

    Add in “Huck Finn,” a bunch of Dickens, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and bits of Shakespeare, you’re well on the way to the liberal canon.

    Problem isn’t that it’s unknown or inaccessible; problem is that John Galt fans don’t know them.

    Your list here helps. I look forward to the new one.

    Regret I’ve not visited your blog more often.

    • Ed, I confess I didn’t catch that one. My definition of a liberal reading list is everything that’s available to be read, so that free-thinkers can decide what to think about it. I once made a prank call to the John Birch Society’s bookstore and asked if they had “Das Kapital.” I’ve suffered through stuff by Rush, and Ann Coulter, just so I have ready answers when I run across their programmed robot followers, but Al Franken does it better than I can. I write for the educated and the educable. If I have the energy to get into an argument with fervent anti-environmentalists, I stick to Socrates’ reductio ad absurdum. But I’m usually too tired to get into pissing contests with those people anymore.

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