Category: Science

Invisible Women

Cover image for Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perezby Caroline Criado Perez

ISBN 978-1-4197-2907-2

“Routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design—whether medical, technological, or architectural—has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. It leads to us injuring ourselves in jobs and cars that weren’t designed for our bodies. It leads to us dying from drugs that don’t work. It has led to the creation of a world where women just don’t fit very well.”

In a data driven world, evidence is everything. But so much of our data is biased, or incomplete, often entirely failing to account for a full half of the population. Author Caroline Criado Perez—known for receiving death threats for advocating to have Jane Austen on the back of Britain’s £10 banknote—calls this the “gender data gap.” And while Criado Perez believes that this gap is, generally, neither deliberate nor malicious, it nevertheless has consequences, ranging from inconvenient to deadly. Poised on the edge of a future where proprietary black box algorithms will use this data to make decisions humans can barely understand, amplifying this invisible bias by orders of magnitude, Criado Perez argues that it is more important than ever that we collect this data, and separate it by sex in order to prevent women from falling through the cracks of a male default world.

Invisible Women reads as a veritable laundry list of gaps, omissions, and injustices that result from presuming a male default in everything from medicine to urban planning to product design. Testing treatments on young (mostly white) males, and then adjusting for women and children, presumes a level of understanding of human biology that we have yet to achieve, and probably never will if we continue to avoid studying large segments of the population. It can also lead to astonishing oversights, such as building houses without kitchens. This happened in the wake of not one, but several disasters in South East Asia, where only consulting with men about the process of rebuilding lead to the creation of houses that failed to include the facilities that were predominantly the domain of women. Some of the examples are glaringly obvious, while others are patched together through a variety of smaller or older studies that give us an impression of what we might be missing because we’ve failed to study “atypical” patterns or behaviours that are in fact only atypical for men.

Done well, science is a tool for discovering the truth about our world. Done poorly, it can enshrine falsehoods and half-truths as doctrine. And leaving women out of almost all medical research for the sake of simplicity and reducing variables is just one example of how research can arrive at such half-truths—truths that are valid for one half of the population, but do not necessarily hold for the other. After nausea, Criado Perez found that the most commonly cited adverse drug reaction among women was that the drug simply didn’t work. For the author, this also raises an equal but opposite question; how many drugs that would have worked for women, but not men, never made it past trials because they were not effective in the majority of the (male) study participants? It is this kind of default thinking that can lead a company to make bank on a drug that stimulates erections in men, while completing ignoring the fact that the same drug was reported in trials to complete eliminate menstrual cramps in women for up to four hours. That’s like sitting on a gold mine and ignoring half of it.

In a book about gaps and biases, I did notice one significant omission in the discussion. Not once does Criado Perez mention transgender women. Nor is the term cisgender ever used. This is in spite of the fact that the she acknowledges that “the female body is not the problem. The problem is the social meaning we ascribe to that body, and a socially determined failure to account for it.” Criado Perez follows three themes through the book, which are the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. While transwomen’s medical realities are different than those of ciswomen (and probably in the middle of an even bigger data gap thanks to their small numbers) they are very much a part of the latter two, most especially male violence against women. Combined with neglecting to discuss the singular they pronoun in a discussion of gender inflection in languages, and a couple of comments that reduced gender to genitals, I was left wondering if Criado Perez was thinking intersectionally. This was a glaring omission in an otherwise very thorough book which included many examples specific to working class women, women of colour, and women in the developing world.

Palaces for the People

Cover image for Palaces for the People by Eric KlinenbergEric Klinenberg

ISBN 978-1-5247-6116-5

Few modern social infrastructures are natural, however, and in densely populated areas even benches and forests require careful engineering and management to meet human needs. This means that all social infrastructure requires investment, whether for development or upkeep, and when we fail to build and maintain it, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode.”

In the summer of 1995, a brutal heat wave struck Chicago, killing more than 700 people. When sociologists, including Eric Klinenberg, began to study the deaths, they realized that communities with similar demographic conditions sometimes had vastly disparate survival outcomes during the heat wave. The disaster formed the core of Klinenberg’s earlier book, Heat Wave, but it also leads into his most recent publication, where he examines the physical conditions that develop communities and make them resilient. In many ways, Palaces for the People combines Heat Wave with Going Solo, where he examined the increasing trend towards living alone, and Modern Romance (with Aziz Ansari) where they looked at how people form romantic relationships in the digital era. In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg examines public libraries, parks and community gardens, schools, and sports leagues, in an effort to demonstrate how these “social infrastructures” improve our communities, our relationships, and our quality of life.

The concept of social infrastructure is related to, but distinct from, social capital, in that social infrastructure represents “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.” Social infrastructures are the places people congregate, and develop communities. The physical landscape of a neighbourhood can be the difference between neighbours who develop “strong and supportive relationships” and those who become “isolated and alone.” If roads and subways and electric grids are the hard infrastructure of a city, soft infrastructure is what we fall back on when these things fail. Klinenberg also notes that while pubs and cafes are classic “third places,” they are not the focus of Palaces for the People, because “not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.”

Klinenberg takes as his first, and key example, the public library, drawing his title from the phrase used to describe the libraries endowed by “robber baron” Andrew Carnegie, who gave away most of his fortune in his later years, so that he is today better remembered as a philanthropist. Klinenberg freely acknowledges Carnegie’s predatory behaviour a titan of industry, someone who was involved in breaking unions, and exploiting workers. However, he still cites Carnegie’s contribution to public libraries as an unparalleled work of public service and social infrastructure building, giving away what would be billions in today’s dollars to endow thousands of libraries.

Klinenberg puts his finger on the pulse of the public library when he writes that “the problem that libraries face isn’t that people no longer visit them, or take out books. On the contrary, so many people are using them, for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.” However, Klinenberg never delves deep enough into the public library to touch on the tensions that often arise between the different groups trying to coexist in these spaces, and the entitlement some “tax paying citizens” feel to never be exposed to people experiencing poverty or homelessness. In glossing over this divide, Klinenberg loses the opportunity to engage with this tendency to self-segregate, to lay private claim to public spaces, or to retreat from public spaces when too many “others” occupy them. Those who can afford to buy their own resources and materials can abandon the public library, just as some white people responded to the desegregation of public swimming pools by building private pools in their own backyards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Palaces for the People are the cases that look like social infrastructure on the surface, but do not effectively serve as such in practice. Gathering places are not necessarily good social infrastructure. Klinenberg highlights a number of institutions that have deleterious effects on community, creating further division rather than unity. Among them are private country clubs, gated communities, fraternities, and tech campuses. In the last case, tech companies often create elaborate social infrastructures for their high level employees—demonstrating that they understand the concept—while shutting out the campus’s service workers, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood. In most cases, all a tech campus means for the existing community is more traffic, and rising rent. The segregation of spaces that are ostensibly open to the public, such as public pools, and churches, have damaged their ability to serve as effective social infrastructure, though this varies widely from case to case. Klinenberg also notes that safe, separate gathering spaces for minority groups are important social infrastructure despite their segregated nature.

Palaces for the People also takes a look at what role technology plays in our social infrastructure, and our changing civic life. Klinenberg has harsh words for tech companies in general, and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, for the claims they have made about community, versus the reality that has played out as social media proliferates. However, he is careful to qualify that digital technology cannot be simply scapegoated as the source of all our woes. He points to studies that find that polarization has actually increased most among people over the age of seventy-five. By contrast, social media is most heavily used by the eighteen to thirty-nine cohort. Therefore, Klinenberg cautions that “social media may well contribute to our widening ideological divisions, but if the Internet doesn’t explain changes in the group that has grown the most polarized, it cannot be entirely to blame.”

Palaces for the People provides a high level look at a number of social infrastructures and their impact on their communities, any one of which could probably be the subject of their own book. However, this is a broad, useful introduction for the non-academic reader into thinking about how our investment in public spaces impacts our private relationships, as well as our larger civic life and social cohesion.

You might also like The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

The Nature Fix

Cover image for The Nature Fix by Florence WIlliams by Florence Williams

ISBN 978-0-393-35557-4

Science is now bearing out what the Romantics knew to be true.”

After a move from mountainous Colorado to the intense urbanity of Washington, DC, journalist Florence Williams found herself stressed and even depressed by the change of scene. DC was grey and full of concrete, traffic, and the constant sound of airplanes arriving and departing the nearby Regan National Airport. The idea of the evils of the city, and the virtues of the countryside is age old, and was particularly popular during the Romantic period, which was a backlash to the Industrial Revolution. But Williams interests herself in the much newer science of the benefits of exposure to nature on human health, both physical and mental. From the wilds of America’s national parks, to the mountains of Japan, and the urban greenery of Singapore and Glasgow, she talks with the various scientists who have been investigating the effects of nature since E.O. Wilson proposed the biophilia hypothesis.

Because this is a newer area of investigation, the exact mechanism by which nature benefits people is still under debate and investigation, making it a particularly interesting area of exploration. Much outdoor activity involves exercise, for example, which has its own well-documented beneficial effects. Williams engages with the different scientists and their various hypotheses about why these interventions are effective, but she is understandably more interested in knowing what works and can be put into practice. But despite her own experiences, she still approaches the subject with a journalist’s skepticism, asking rigorous questions about potentially cofounding variables.

Williams structures her book to look at nature exposure in terms of dosing. What is the effect of mere urban vegetation, for example, a tree outside a hospital window, or a small city park? She then progresses through relatively larger doses, considering what happens when we go for a day hike, or a weekend camping trip, or a long nature retreat. She finishes with a group of female veterans on a weeks-long rafting trip. The women are suffering from PTSD, either from their time in combat zones, or from experiencing sexual assault while in the service, but many experience significant improvement from a multi-week outdoor adventure.

Traveling widely in pursuit of her subject, Williams investigates interesting practices such as shinrin-yoku, or Japanese forest bathing. This a sort of mindful hiking popular in Japan and, increasingly, Korea. It emphasizes a multisensory experience, and researchers there have deeply studied the effects of the scent of the hinoki cypress tree. However, it also has a business aspect, encouraging tourism to Japan’s natural areas, and helping to justify their preservation. The term shinrin-yoku itself was officially created by the Japanese government, Williams finds, although the practice has older roots in Shinto practices.

For those looking for the brief download, Williams provides it in the form of a quote from Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, who advises, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.” These practices can lower the stress hormone cortisol, and even measurably reduce your blood pressure. Anxiety can only be subjectively measured, but researchers have also found reductions in this form of mental distress.

In addition to the benefits of nature, Williams also explores some of the aspects of urban living that can be less than good for the body and mind, such as soundscapes. Traffic and other urban noise can be a surprisingly significant stressor, especially for sensitive people. Even if you aren’t aware of urban noises actively waking you up in the night, they can disturb the quality of your sleep and leave you feeling less rejuvenated come morning. Other studies have shown the deleterious effects of living too close to a freeway, which is a major source of both noise and air pollution for urbanites. Taken together, these studies make a compelling argument for urban design that preserves or enhances natural features, rather than paving over them.

The Nature Fix is a well-rounded exploration of the budding investigation into the benefits of nature on human health written in the style of readable science journalism with a touch of the travelogue.

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You might also like Rest by Alex Soo-Jung Kim Pang

Everybody Lies

Cover image for Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitzby Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

ISBN 9780062390875

“There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from the traditional sources but was quite apparent in the searches people made.”

Big data has been much hyped as the next big thing in science, but Everybody Lies sets out to show what can be done with big data that wasn’t possible before, while also acknowledging its shortcomings, and the ways it can be complemented by traditional small data collection techniques. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz makes the argument that the Google dataset he has been working with is particularly valuable, because unlike even anonymous surveys, users have an incentive to be honest, and little or no sense of wanting to impress anyone. To get the information they want from Google, they must query honestly about even the most taboo subjects, from sex to race to medical problems. Facebook, for example, is not nearly as useful, because people are consciously presenting a certain version of themselves to their friends. But if you want Google to bring you back the “best racist jokes,” you have to tell it so. You can’t hide, and still get what you want. The result is a partial but unprecedented glimpse into the human mind.

I picked up this book to get the interesting facts that Stephens-Davidowitz learned from his analyses of this revealing dataset. That said, there is also plenty of basic introduction to data collection and research methodology, which might be a bit tedious for anyone who is already familiar with this material. However, I appreciated the attention to basics when it came to statistical analysis, an area where I don’t have the same background knowledge or experience. The author also spends a good bit of time trying to convince skeptics on one side that big data is useful, and on the other side, warning evangelists of the limitations. A big dataset can actually be an encumbrance if you don’t know what questions to ask of it. However, I sometimes took issue with the way the author tried to present information in an accessible way. Comparing a large dataset to your Grandma’s lifetime of collected wisdom is more harmful than helpful because only one of those things is based on verifiable numbers rather than impressions.

One subject that doesn’t get much attention in Everybody Lies is privacy. Stephens-Davidowitz notes that the Google datasets are anonymized, and that multiple sessions by the same user are not connected. He does reference an old Yahoo dataset that released the search histories of anonymized users, which enabled a different level of pattern detection between searches made by the same individual. Later in the book, he delves into the ethics of using pattern detection from large dataset in particular situations. For example, a study has been done that examines which words in a loan application—God, promise, will pay, thank you, hospital—are most indicative of a potential default on the loan’s repayment. This study used the loan application itself, but what if in the future your suitability for a job was calculated based on analyzing patterns in the language of anything and everything you’ve ever written publicly on the internet? This really only brushes the surface of potential privacy problems.

So what did Stephens Davidowitz find that was interesting? A methodology of approximating the percentage of American men that are gay that accounts for those who are in the closet more accurately than any previous estimate. A behind the scenes look at where and when racist searches are highest that might explain discrepancies between polling numbers and Obama’s actual election results. The one telling Google search that also best predicted the current president’s success in any given electoral district, regardless of public polling numbers. These are the fascinating glimpses into the human psyche that I came for, but I had to read through a lot of other information of questionable interest to get at them.

Evicted

Cover image for Evicted by Matthew Desmondby Matthew Desmond

ISBN 9780553447446

“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.

Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.

A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.

Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.

One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.

Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court.  I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.

Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.

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You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Rest

Cover image for Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

ISBN 978-0-465-7487-7

“Rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”

If someone told you that you could feel better while working less and getting more done, you would probably think they were selling snake oil, or at least methamphetamines. But in Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is making exactly that contention, while bringing the science to back it up. Pang’s core thesis is that rest and work are interdependent rather than opposing forces in our lives, and that this idea is backed up by psychology, neuroscience, and sports medicine. Pang cites a variety of scientific studies from around the world, on subjects such as sleeping, napping, exercise, and creativity in order to show how these activities—which occur outside of work—come together to profoundly influence productivity and creative thinking on the job. He also looks into the lives of figures like Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, and Dwight Eisenhower, to show how they incorporated restful practices into their daily routines while also producing great work, or operating under extremely stressful circumstances.

Pang’s contention is not unique, and he isn’t the first person to call out the destructive nature of our sleep-deprived, always-on business culture. However, I did like the way he approached rest holistically. Sleep is an important part of the book, but Pang also examines routines, exercise, and hobbies, as well as vacations and sabbaticals to see how these others forms of taking a break from work affect our performance. He also demonstrates that it is not just doing these activities that is important, but also being mentally disconnected from work in the process. It is not that our society does not enjoy ample leisure time, necessarily, but rather than we make poor use of it. Pang extensively explored the digital aspect of that distraction in his previous book, so he does not touch on it much in Rest.

One section I found particularly interesting was the study of napping—as opposed to night-time sleep. While I was generally on board with Pang’s message that we need to rest more, and rest smarter, I have long been pretty anti-nap, because I always seem to wake up groggy and nauseous from mid-day sleep. But Pang includes a section on what studies show about optimizing napping (see page 121) to your circumstances, whether you want to feel more rested, process new learning, or be more creative when you wake. Apparently both the length and the timing of the nap are key, and the ideal time is between five and seven hours after waking up in the morning, which is a low point in the Circadian rhythm of the human body. Using that information, I took two successful naps after reading this book!

One of the most famous studies cited in Rest is K. Anders Ericsson’s famous study of Berlin violin students, the best of whom had accumulated about 10, 000 hours of deliberate practice at the time they were assessed. This study became famous after Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers. Gladwell has been frequently critiqued for his oversimplification and selective use of Ericsson’s study. Here Pang highlights another part of Ericsson’s work Gladwell ignored, namely that the best students tended to sleep more, and often took afternoon naps. Deliberate practice took a lot of mental effort, and sleep helped them to consolidate the learning and benefits of that practice. The students also recognized that there was a limit to the amount of deliberate practice they could do in a day, and that continuing beyond that point was not useful.

Though Pang cites a variety of studies by a diverse group of researchers, I did notice that his examples always tended to be white men, usually scientists and executives. Pang has enough insight to note that women can particularly benefit from vacation, for example, because it can relieve them of household and childcare responsibilities, in addition to their work duties, but beyond such passing references, he seems to have little interest in exploring how this research could be relevant to, or exemplified in, the lives of women. This is not to say that there are no women examples, but they tend to be passing, as opposed to the more in-depth profiles of Darwin and Eisenhower.

Although Pang’s thesis is not unique, he provides a good overview of studies in a variety of interconnected realms that contribute to a well-rounded approach to rest and its relationship to productivity. I see in this book the outlines of the best parts of my daily routine, largely discovered through trial and error. But the keys are here for the taking, if you haven’t already discovered them elsewhere.

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You might also like Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Being Mortal

Cover image for Being Mortal by Atul Gawandeby Atul Gawande

ISBN 978-0-8050-9515-9

“Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.”

In 1945, most Americans died at home. By the 1980s that number was down to 17%. Today it is trending back upwards as more people pursue options that allow them to live out their final days in the comfort of their own homes. Doctor and writer Atul Gawande explores how dying became medicalized in the intervening years, as science offered new innovations for beating back disease in the 20th century. Encompassing both the elderly and the terminally ill, Gawande examines how end of life care falls short of providing patients with the best possible quality of life in their final days, instead focusing on what else can be tried to fix the unfixable, and beat back the inevitable. From nursing homes to cancer wards to assisted living facilities to hospice care, Gawande reveals the shortcomings of the institutions we have created for the dying, and asks how we can be better prepared to face the question of mortality with clear eyes and compassion.

Atul Gawande’s previous books Better and The Checklist Manifesto both make it amply clear that he takes continuous professional improvement extremely seriously. In Being Mortal, he examines how society and the medical system can improve the treatment and care of elderly and terminally ill patients. Using the case of his wife’s grandmother, he shows how North American nursing homes commonly fall short, by focusing on safety rather than quality of life. Turning to his own grandfather in India, he shows some of the comparative advantages of multi-generational in-home care, but also highlights the inter-generational conflicts and tensions that can arise from this living situation. In the end, he concludes that both models fall short of providing the elderly with the level of control they need to have over their lives in order to be happy.

Gawande is wary of over-idealizing care provided by children in their homes for their elderly parents. In addition to his own grandfather, he uses the case of Shelley and her father Lou to show the stresses and tensions that this can result in. However, many people feel that this model is the ideal, and it is commonly argued that the decline of children caring for their parents indicates a lack of respect for elders in North American culture that comes from the veneration of youth. But Gawande has a slightly different take. He argues that what is being venerated is not youth, but the independent self, and both nursing homes and living with one’s children degrade that independence which is so central to the North American identity. But this way of thinking offers up a question that has been insufficiently answered: “if independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?”

Gawande talks about patients, both his own and those he meets in the course of his research, talking with geratiatricians and hospice care workers. He also draws on examples from his own life. Early in the book, he discusses the situation of his wife’s grandmother, Alice Hobson, who lived independently for many years, but eventually began having falls that made it too dangerous for her to continue living alone. She ultimately ending up in a nursing home she despised. Later, after he has explored the nuances of geriatric and hospice care, Gawande approaches the case of his own father, who was discovered to have a slow-growing tumour in his spine when he was in his seventies. His father’s case shows Gawande putting his new skills to use, but equally demonstrates that life is complicated and unpredictable, and that even with this knowledge, the end of life will not necessarily be ideal. Gawande is offering hope and help, not a magical solution that will make every difficult situation easy.

Being Mortal is a book that is important for young and old alike. For those facing choices about where and how they will live in their last years, Gawande offers food for thought about the different options available. Younger readers will be better prepared to navigate these conversations with their parents. And of course, anyone of any age can find themselves faced with an unexpected illness that catapults them into facing their own mortality sooner than they might have wished or planned. Readers will emerge with a better understanding of the warning signs of decline that can severely limit independence, the factors that most affect satisfaction with elder and hospice care for the patients, and questions to use in discussions with doctors and loved ones.

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You might also like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Lab Girl

Cover image for Lab Girl by Hope Jahrenby Hope Jahren

ISBN 9781101890202

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” 

The daughter of a community college science professor, Hope Jahren always felt at home in the laboratory, playing there while her father worked. After obtaining her PhD from UC Berkeley, she would go on to become a geobiologist, founding multiple laboratories, and winning honours from the Fulbright to the Young Investigator Medal. Part memoir, and part science, Lab Girl shares Jahren’s experiences from graduate school to tenured professor, and all the bumps along the way, including funding cuts, bipolar disorder, and changing institutions.

Lab Girl began its life as a text book, but Jahren found herself unable to separate what she had learned from how she learned it. So it became a memoir, and Jahren’s chapters alternate between describing her life and work, and waxing poetic about trees, plants, and nature more generally. When she reveals, late in the book, that she also writes poetry, it comes as no surprise. With her descriptions, she is able to make processes like photosynthesis and flowering both beautiful and interesting. Through her words you can fully appreciate the stunning feat that is a plant’s ability to make sugar out of light, or that fact that a tree that is one of the few living things—flora or fauna—that can stand motionless through a cold winter, and not die. Using the metaphor of the struggle a seed undergoes to become a plant, Jahren chronicles her own struggle to grow into a scientist, in a profession where money is short, and women are not always welcome, and others don’t always see the significance of what you are doing.

Jahren’s relationship with her parents is distant and cool, even as she describes her father as the inspiration for her interest in science. After the chapters on her childhood, they are rarely mentioned again. She does eventually marry, but she meets her husband late in life, and even then he features little in the text. The primary relationship in Lab Girl, and one of the most interesting parts of the story, is the decades long friendship with her lab assistant Bill. The two met when Jahren was a PhD student and teaching assistant, and Bill was an undergraduate. He is an odd but compelling character, and a constant in Jahren’s life as she moves from Georgia Tech to Johns Hopkins to the University of Hawaii. After they completed their degrees at the same time, Bill followed her to Atlanta to work in her first lab, and has remained her right hand ever since.

Another clear theme that emerges in Lab Girl is the ongoing difficulty of funding scientific research, particularly research that does not have any immediately identifiable practical application. A huge part of Jahren’s job is not doing the science or teaching she was hired for, but writing grant applications to ensure the continued operation of her lab, and the salaries of Bill and their ever-changing cast of student assistants. Without money, there is no science, and though Jahren secured a salary for herself, universities do not generally pay for labs, beyond some start-up funding for new professors. Jahren even slips a line into the book apologetically soliciting patrons, adding that she would be “absolutely crazy” not to include it.

I listened to Lab Girl as an audiobook, which Jahren performs herself, reading in a soft voice with a few pleasant traces of her Minnesota childhood. Her voice is quiet and unassuming, until she comes to the more difficult parts of the text, such as describing her struggles with mental illness. Then her voice overflows with emotion, giving the audiobook a personal touch that would not have been possible if it was performed by a voice actor. It perfectly embodies the way Jahren blends the personal and the scientific.

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