Category: Science

When Breath Becomes Air

Cover image for When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithiby Paul Kalanithi

ISBN 978-1-4104-8785-8

“I was less driven by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: what makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.”

After ten years of medical education, Paul Kalanithi was on the verge of completing his training as a neurosurgeon when he became concerned about his own health. At first he blamed the rigours of residency, but a CT scan soon revealed the worst: cancer in the lungs, spine, and liver. Early in his university career, Kalanithi studied literature, dreaming of a career as a writer, but was driven to medicine by questions about mortality and meaning that he felt could not be answered by literature alone. Suddenly, those questions became urgent and personal, and the only time left to write a book and achieve that dream was now.

Kalanithi’s February 2014 New York Times op-ed “How Long Have I Got Left?” was a viral sensation. Two years later, Kalanithi is dead, but his book, When Breath Becomes Air, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty-nine weeks as of this writing. It sits a few spots above Being Mortal, by fellow Indian-American doctor Atul Gawande, which has been on the list for eighty-one weeks. Clearly the theme of mortality has struck a nerve.

When Breath Becomes Air is both short (280 pages) and fast-paced. One moment Kalanithi and his wife are considering whether or not to get pregnant, and a couple pages later, she is three months along. At no point does he arrive at the moment he decided to start writing the book, though his connection to literature is evident and explored. The style, the sense of rushing, is literally characteristic of the state in which Kalanithi was living; the timeline he had expected suddenly sped up and warped beyond recognition. When Breath Becomes Air is, in a sense, unfinished, derailed by Kalanithi’s rapid decline. But that is an essential component of its truth, of the reality that he faced.

Up front, Kalanithi admits that he and his wife were struggling at the time of his diagnosis. The long hours of medical school and residency—his wife is also a doctor—had taken a toll on their connection. But I was moved by the fact that his illness reconnected them. I didn’t get the sense that Lucy stayed out of obligation, but rather that the diagnosis stripped away everything that had gotten between them over the years. To be honest, Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue was the part of the book that affected me most. This is, perhaps, unfair. She had time; time to reflect, and time to polish, a luxury her husband did not enjoy.

Kalanithi’s concern with seeking the meaning of life is largely philosophical, and occasionally religious. He is able to approach his death theoretically and intellectually, in a manner that can almost seem cold, even as it is also obviously the fire that drove him into medicine in the first place. After getting two degrees in literature, Kalanithi put off his dream of being a writer to pursue the medical side of this question, imagining a literary career could wait until after he was an established neurosurgeon and researcher. He is idealistic, and even romantic, still finding his voice even as he loses it. When Breath Becomes Air is simultaneously reflective and rushed, because while Kalanithi is concerned with big, deep questions, he was left with little time to ponder them.

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Further reflections on life and death: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

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The Girls of the Atomic City

Cover image for The Girls of the Atomic City by Denise Kiernanby Denise Kiernan

eISBN 978-1-4516-1754-2

“She had spent years not knowing, wondering, sometimes guessing, and then giving up. She had accepted the need and duty to not know; and now this. Today, for no apparent reason, without any warning and out of the sweltering summer blue, came the Secret.”

In 1942, the American government began buying up and seizing a significant amount of land in the hills of East Tennessee. This was nothing new for the locals; land had been taken from them by the government before, first for the creation of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and then again for the construction of the Norris Dam. And of course, that land had first been taken from the Cherokee. But this seizure was different. Fast and secretive, soon an entire town stood where there had been only a few scattered farmsteads before, a town guarded and secured by the military. And from all over the region, women began arriving, many of them living away from home for the first time. They had been offered jobs, but told nothing about them. They knew only that their purpose was to help bring about “a speedy and victorious end to the war.” For many of them, that was all they needed to know, when their other choice was to wait at home for brothers, and fathers, and lovers to return from the war. And most of them would not learn the truth until “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, ushering in the atomic age they helped create.

After introducing the code name for uranium—tubealloy—in the opening pages, Denise Kiernan refers to it by that code name throughout the text, until after the Secret is out. The narrative actually begins with the revelation of the Secret, but then circles back to show how the eight main women Kiernan follows arrived at the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW). The chapters alternate between the women’s lives and work in Oak Ridge, and chapters about the science and history of the Manhattan Project—things the women in Tennessee knew nothing about at the time. This is part of Kiernan’s strategy of compartmentalization, designed to mimic in literary form the secrecy that the CEW employees operated under during the war. The view from within CEW is narrow and circumscribed, each woman confined to her own role. Talking about your work was forbidden, and anyone might be a spy. The Tubealloy chapters treat history and science more broadly, although the two begin to bleed together as the Secret comes closer to being revealed. Many other books have been written about the Manhattan Project, and these chapters largely retread familiar ground if this is not your first read on the subject.

Kiernan’s unique angle is the women who formed much of the workforce in Oak Ridge. The rationale for hiring so many women was part practical and part cynical. With so many men gone to war, women had to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers. But young women with only a high school education were also considered biddable; it was easier to get them to follow orders without asking questions. The curiosity of women who had pursued higher education was looked at askance, a potential security risk. University types in general—male and female—were considered a particular security risk because of the unusual amount of Communist literature that circulated on university campuses. A test at the plants showed that the high school graduates could produce more Product in a shift than the PhD scientists, and by quite a significant margin. They didn’t theorize or tinker; they just worked. Although women formed a good part of the Oak Ridge work force, they still faced inequality. Jane Greer, a statistician, knew that she was making less money than the men who worked below her in the department she supervised. Nor could women serve as “head of household,” disqualifying families without a man present at CEW from applying for a shared house or apartment.

Kiernan also draws attention to the situation of black workers at CEW. Her primary window into this world is Kattie Strickland, who came to Oak Ridge with her husband to work as a janitor. They had to leave their children behind with family in Auburn, Alabama; black children were not allowed to live with their families at CEW. In fact, Kattie and her husband didn’t get to live together either. When demand for white housing outstripped the expected pace, the allotted black subdivision was handed over, and black couples had to continue living in gender segregated hutments. Segregation applied to the community’s social life as well. The temporary town already survived in pioneer conditions, but the black workers had it worse. Kiernan also brings up the case of Ebb Cade, a black construction worker whose hospital stay after a car accident was transformed into an opportunity for the Project to investigate—without Cade’s knowledge or consent—the potential dangers of plutonium for the human body.

Kiernan carries on a little bit beyond the war, documenting Oak Ridge’s growing pains in the transition from secret government facility to proper municipality. Her follow up on the lives of the women is largely limited to their marriages and families; most do not seem to have had careers after the war. Nothing is said about how they felt about that transition. Similarly, Kiernan largely restricts herself to documenting how the women felt about the bomb at the time of its revelation, long before its significant fallout was clear. Most were simply happy that the war was coming to end, although some expressed reservations about the bomb being deployed against civilians. As for reflection, one of the women, Colleen, “hoped never to see the bomb she helped fuel used again. She continued to hope that the first time was the last.”

The Girls of the Atomic City explains the Manhattan project in understandable terms for those who have never read about it before. But more compelling are the stories of the women who lived and worked under such unusual conditions, labouring away on a project they knew nothing about. For better or worse, it is difficult to imagine placing so much trust in the government or the military today.

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Reasons to Stay Alive

Cover image for Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haigby Matt Haig

ISBN 978-0-14-312872-4

“Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are escape routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”

Matt Haig and his girlfriend Andrea were spending the summer in Ibiza, working at one of the island’s biggest party destinations when the otherwise reasonably healthy twenty-four year old suffered a mental breakdown, consisting of depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. He had perhaps been drinking too much, and sleeping too little, but the severity of the breakdown seemed out of all proportion to anything that had gone before. After a few very intense days, he found himself standing on the edge of a cliff, contemplating ending his life. In retrospect, there were a few warning signs, but nothing that would have stuck out without the breakdown. From the distance of fourteen years, Haig recounts the experience, and the slow road back to mental and physical health. Presented in a variety of essays, lists, and anecdotes, it offers small, accessible pieces to help digest a difficult topic.

In general this book is much more about the experience of depression in its various stages than about recovery from it. Doctor’s visits, therapy, and medication are mentioned much more passingly. The sections about getting better seem to focus more on self-care. Haig credits not taking pills with being alert enough to observe what made him feel better, or worse, and then act accordingly. He obviously has a complex and conflicted relationship with medication. Early on he states, with several qualifiers, “I am reluctant to come out and be all anti-pills because I know for some people some pills work.” His own recovery took place over a period of years, largely unaided by medication because the thought of taking anything that might alter his mind (potentially making things worse) triggered a panic attack. His depression only allowed him to imagine the worst case scenario of things getting even darker, because it stole the belief that better was possible. The problem was so pronounced that he describes swallowing an ibuprofen as feeling like he had taken “an overdose of methamphetamine.” But over the course of the book, it does seem that his difficulty goes a little beyond that to a general suspicion of pharmaceuticals, and a desire to experiment with alternative medicines. The first suggested book in the Further Reading section at the end is Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre.

When Haig suffered his breakdown, he was in a foreign country with only his girlfriend. Fortunately, she had the strength to drag him to a doctor, pack up their life in Ibiza, resist the pressures of an employer who wanted her to send him home alone, and get both of them back to England where they had a support system.  As someone who has supported loved ones struggling with mental health issues, but never battled them myself, I related particularly strongly to Andrea. I read this book hoping to better understand what it is like to experience depression and anxiety, but also found someone who demonstrated the empathy and resourcefulness we all hope to find in ourselves if faced with the same challenge. Haig both dedicates the book to her, and spends a good number of pages showing how she was instrumental to his recovery.

Haig is a writer, so it is perhaps unsurprising that books were another major pillar of his recovery. Early on, he was too anxious and unfocused to be able to read, and so his illness also stole one of his greatest pleasures from him, one more casualty of a disease that tried to take everything. When he began to feel a little better, he reclaimed that aspect of himself with a vengeance, devouring books as if they were sustenance. Books “weren’t a luxury good during that time.”  Well enough to feel isolated, but still too ill to feel at ease among people outside his family, books were his  “way out of being lonely.”

Reasons to Stay Alive is an account of Haig’s individual experience, however, he sometimes speaks about depression more broadly. A frequently highlighted passage of the book reads “If you have ever believed a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain.” But he does also acknowledge unique experiences of depression up front, writing “there is no right or wrong way to have depression or to have a panic attack, or feel suicidal.” Given the overwhelming number of depressed or anxious readers who have praised Haig for capturing their own experiences, this seems like a strong pick for both those who have experienced the illness, and their friends and family who want to better understand it.

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Page to Screen: Masters of Sex

Cover image for Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier by Thomas Maier

Written by Michelle Ashford

Directed by Michael Apted

ISBN 978-0-465-0799-5

Sexual research is legitimate field of scientific inquiry that continues to be restricted by social mores. Dr. William Masters and his colleague Virginia Johnson were among the first to breach those taboos in the mid-1950s. While their predecessor Alfred Kinsey collected subjective sexual histories for his work at Indiana University, Masters and Johnson ventured into the much more objectionable direct study of human subjects engaging in sexual acts. In Masters of Sex, author Thomas Maier chronicles the complexly intertwined lives and work of the two researchers, who also eventually married, and then divorced. In 2013, Showtime adapted his biography for television under the same title.

Dr. Masters gained the leeway to perform his controversial research through fifteen years of work as a renowned ob-gyn and fertility specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. He was personally responsible for the reproductive success of many of St. Louis’ most prominent citizens, including the police commissioner, a debt he did not hesitate to cash in when he wanted to begin conducting research in the city’s brothels. Although Johnson is clearly portrayed as the people person in their duo on the television program, the biography shows that Masters was adept enough at leveraging his professional relationships and credentials to get what he wanted. This would become evident again when he needed to assemble a board for his research institute in order to secure tax-exempt status.

By starting their work in the less accommodating 1950s, Masters and Johnson were poised to break onto the scene when the sexual revolution took hold a decade later. However, their controversial work was not without consequences or complications, professional and personal; Masters was ousted from Washington University’s hospital, with the aura of respectability it provided, and had to set up his own institute to continue the work. Their ground-breaking research debunked many myths about human sexuality, and particularly female sexuality. However, while their goals were laudable and necessary, their means were not always kosher by modern standards, beginning with Masters’ asking Johnson to have sex with him in the lab, ostensibly for the purposes of the study. Today we recognize the unacceptable power differential inherent in this proposition, as well as the unethical nature of being involved as subjects in their own study. They are far from unimpeachable scientists, though their legacy is significant. Moreover, they make for fascinating biography subjects, and things only become more tangled in later years.

Maier was able to draw from the unpublished memoir of William Masters, who died in 2001, as well as interview the then somewhat reclusive Virginia Johnson, who was living under the name Mary Masters. Though she was known to turn other writers away, she shared her complicated feelings about her relationship with Masters, and grappled with the question of whether or not she ever really loved him.  She passed away in 2013, only a couple months before the TV pilot was set to air. And though he touches on controversies, such as their later work on conversion therapy and AIDS, Maier is certainly a friendly biographer, which perhaps explains the cooperation he was able to obtain.

The Showtime series Masters of Sex is based on Maier’s book, and he also serves as a writer and producer on the program. Three full seasons have now aired, with a fourth scheduled for later this year, but for the purposes of this review, I have only covered seasons one and two. Although plenty of the content comes directly from Maier’s book, there are ample departures from its pages. In particular, Maier devotes little attention to Masters’ wife, Libby, in the book, but on the show she is one of the primary characters, and things must be found for her to do. With Maier along for the ride, it is hard to say what is entirely fictional, and what might be drawn from research that didn’t find its way into his book. However, he has definitely stated that Libby’s storyline with racism and the Civil Rights Movement is the writers “creative interpretation.”

The lead characters are played by Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen. They capture the push and pull of the extremely complicated relationship that existed between their real life counterparts, and both possess the necessary ability to shift from confident portrayal to vulnerability, often in quick succession. The power dynamic is a fraught one, as is especially evident in the early episodes when Virginia has to figure out how to say no to Bill’s proposal that they have sex together as part of the study. As much as Masters’ needed Johnson’s skills, without credentials of her own, she could not walk away from him without also having to give up the work they were doing. The conflict is quite evident, even without being addressed in modern terms within the show. In this respect, the book has the advantage of being able to pull back from the time in which the events took place to address this more explicitly, including broaching the subject with the real Virginia Johnson in interviews.

One disturbing aspect of the book is Masters’ and Johnson’s involvement in early conversion therapies for gay people, who at that time were considered to have a mental illness. Homosexuality would not be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. Although the TV series does not reach this period in the first two seasons, the character of Provost Scully, played by Beau Bridges, follows a story arc that addresses views of homosexuality at that time. Masters and Johnson’s later work (1968-1977) would delve more directly into this area, though Johnson later expressed serious reservations about the conversion therapy work, and Thomas Maier concludes that much of the data was probably faked by Bill Masters. It will be interesting to see how this topic is treated in later seasons.

Scully is far from the only composite or fictionalized character in the series. Combining various plot points inspired by different real events and people into an ongoing set of largely fictionalized secondary characters both allows the cast to be kept small, and potentially avoids some legal issues. Though both Masters are Johnson are now dead, their respective children are still alive, and there has been much speculation about changes to the program in order to avoid legal entanglement with the families. My own favourite character is Lester, the videographer who is charged with documenting Masters and Johnson’s work. In reality, most of their documentation was in the form of audio tapes, as well as readouts from the machines they attached to their subjects, but Lester’s work ties much more nicely into the visual format of a TV program. He drops bon mots about film theory, and takes his dates to obscure foreign films. In the second season, he is recruited to double duty as a study subject for the foray into the field of sex therapy to treat sexual dysfunction.

The Showtime series clearly dramatizes and condenses, and has the added advantage of two extremely compelling performers. However, for those, like me, who are always curious about what is really true in a historical drama, Maier’s book is a necessary companion. Maier does much to elucidate the legacy of Masters and Johnson, most of which has faded from popular memory. However, his clear admiration is not always sufficiently critical of their more flawed endeavours.

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The Marshmallow Test

Cover image for The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischelby Walter Mischel

ISBN 978-0-316-23086-5

“The power is not in the stimulus itself, however, but in how it’s mentally appraised: if you change how you think about it, its impact on what you feel and do changes.”

Walter Mischel is the originator of the delayed gratification experiments that have come to be popularly known as the Marshmallow Test (even though the treat is question was not always a marshmallow). He began studying the ability of children to delay immediate gratification in exchange for a later, larger reward at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School in the 1960s. Initially, Mischel was trying to understand what enabled some people to delay, while others could not wait. But because his own daughters attended the school, he would hear about their former nursery school peers from time to time, and he noticed that there appeared to be a correlation between their success on the test, and their later achievements. He instituted longitudinal tests in order to determine if his informal observations had any validity. The correlation held up in laboratory tests, and Mischel subsequently dedicated his career to understanding the relationship between self-control and success in other endeavours.

The Marshmallow Test has had a variety of marketing-oriented subtitles in its various editions, including “Mastering Self-Control,” “Understanding Self-Control and How to Master It”, “Self-Control Demystified,” and “Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success.” But while Mischel does elucidate the strategies that allow those with strong self-control to delay immediate gratification, only a small portion of the book is dedicated to the application of these strategies to the life of the reader. Marketing aside, Mischel is more concerned with scientific questions, such as what other factors—besides executive function—are important to self-control? Is this trait a product of nature or nurture, and is it malleable or fixed?

Mischel is concerned with these questions because they add nuance to a test that has been greatly oversimplified in the popular imagination. While it is true that a significant correlation has been found between successfully delaying gratification on the marshmallow test and later success in life, it is by no means a fixed relationship. For example, Mischel found that trust was extremely significant for an accurate test; if the child did not trust that the researcher would actually provide the second treat, they had no incentive to delay. Emotional states are also important; if you are feeling sad or bad, it is more difficult to resist something that will offer some immediate gratification. These two factors could easily change from one test to another with the same subject, and must be controlled for. In order to further test his findings, Mischel also ventured out from the rarified sample of the initial Stanford study, and took the marshmallow test to the South Bronx in order to check if his findings held up across racial and socioeconomic lines.

Thanks to the marshmallow test, Mischel is an oft-consulted figure, a media favourite when it comes time to ask for an expert to opine on why an otherwise seemingly trustworthy public figure would sleep with an intern, or hire a prostitute. People seem to believe that self-control is a fixed characteristic that will remain steady across all situations, but Mischel’s studies have shown that someone may have iron-clad self-control when it comes to resisting the temptation to slack off at work, but at the same time be completely unable to stick to a diet. Motivations and consequences can be a significant factor. However, I think Mischel is overly quick to dismiss Roy Baumeister’s research on the finitude of willpower. It has been amply demonstrated that being tired, sad, or hungry can cause your self-control to become depleted more quickly, even in an area in which you are normally very disciplined.

Mischel explains his subject clearly, but does not tend to oversimplify. Rather than pressing an explanation of either nature or nurture, he argues for a complex interaction between the two factors. He provides real cases as examples in order to illustrate a point, but does not conflate anecdotes with data. He carefully accounts for variables, as is evidenced by the many factors he has found and manipulated, in order to account for how they might impact a trial. Race, class, emotional state, and even how the subjects are prepared by researchers have all been carefully checked. The chapters are well annotated, and the book is thoroughly indexed. All of this points towards the fact that this is a work by an academic, albeit one intended to be accessible to a general audience. Despite the marketing, it is not a self-help book, and I think most who are disappointed with The Marshmallow Test will find that it is because they were led to expect something else.

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The Birth of the Pill

Cover image for The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig  by Jonathan Eig

ISBN 978-0-393-35189-7

“A movement centered on sexual pleasure would never get the support it needed, but a movement focused on health might have a chance. It was a strategic accommodation, and a shrewd one.”

In 1950, after decades of fighting for women’s rights and sexual liberation, after founding and then being largely frozen out of Planned Parenthood, seventy-one year old Margaret Sanger met with biologist Gregory Pincus, a scientist who had been ousted from Harvard for his radical views. Sanger was still searching for her Holy Grail, something that many other scientists had told her was impossible; thirty states still banned contraception, but she wanted a cheap, reliable medication that a woman could take discreetly to prevent unwanted or untimely pregnancy. Unlike previous scientists Sanger had consulted, Pincus believed it could be done. With funding from the wealthy widow and MIT graduate Katharine McCormick, and help from the Catholic gynecologist John Rock, Pincus set out to develop, test, and gain approval for the first pharmaceutical contraceptive.

The Birth of the Pill follows Sanger and Pincus’ partnership from inception, through the development of the drug, and to Enovid’s approval as a method of birth control in the 1960s. Sanger and Pincus receive the most attention, while McCormick and Rock play significant roles. Other important players, such as M.C. Chang, Carl Djerassi, and Edris Rice-Wray are largely in the background. Jonathan Eig chronicles this journey along two fronts: developing the technology to achieve the goal and fighting the publicity battle to make birth control socially acceptable.

In profiling Sanger, Eig struggles to grapple with her involvement with eugenicists, who promoted efforts to improve the human race through selective breeding for characteristics they deemed desirable. As Eig points out, in the 1920s and 1930s, espousing eugenics was much more socially acceptable than advocating feminism or birth control, and Sanger gained respectability, at least early on, by allying with them. Yet for a radical feminism seeking the social and sexual liberation of women, Sanger could be terribly paternalistic about the abilities of the lower classes. Eig uses this to argue that she was more classist than racist, since counter to eugenics, Sanger wasn’t interested in encouraging white women to have more children. However, Sanger also remained in bed with eugenicists long after they came to disrepute in the fallout of World War II, doubling down on the idea that the world would soon be unable to support its growing population even as society was becoming more open to her original arguments about sexual liberation. Eig seems to be synthesizing from his research when he opines on Sanger’s views, but given the pervasiveness of accusations of racism against her, more direct quotes from her papers to support his conclusions would have been welcome.

Unlike Sanger, Gregory Pincus deplored eugenics. His family had fled anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, so he was profoundly aware of where such beliefs could lead. Yet perhaps more disturbing than Sanger’s troubling views on race and disability are Pincus’ free-wheeling scientific methods, which today we recognize as patently unethical. The Belmont Report on ethics in human research would not be published until 1978, in response to precisely the sort of abuses that occurred during the development of the Pill. The fact that Pincus was a risk-taker was instrumental to his willingness to take on such a controversial project, but it also led to some startling abuses. Puerto Rico was selected as the location for clinical trials because birth control was legal, and the voluntary sterilization rate after giving birth amongst Puerto Rican women led researchers to believe it would be easy to recruit willing women. When Puerto Rican women proved less willing to participate in the study than originally hoped, researchers tried to strong-arm them into continuing. For example, those who were recruited because they were medical or nursing students were told it was a mandatory part of their course work. Back in the United States, Pincus also experiment on residents of a nearby mental hospital. In addition to being unable to consent, the asylum patients were generally not sexually active, and thus there was no way to be sure the medication was actually working as intended. Pincus violated vulnerable people in order to obtain data of questionable validity, so desperate was he for research subjects. Fortunately the drug proved relatively safe—unlike say, thalidomide, which went on the market around the same time—but the violation of these women remains.

The Birth of the Pill illuminates the many violations that made possible the invention of a crucial tool that has shaped modern society, and irrevocably changed the role of women within it. But though the cost of the Pill is evident throughout Eig’s work, so too are the social conditions that led to Sanger’s fervent belief in its necessity. Eig includes portions of a number of striking letters Sanger and Pincus received from women begging for her help because their bodies were worn out from childbirth, and their homes were full of more children than they could hope to feed or care for, and yet still their husbands came to their beds. Eig also amply illustrates the fear the prospect of effective birth control aroused in society, and the particular opposition of the Catholic Church. Their hysteria is still recognizable in the tactics and arguments of today’s anti-choice advocates. However, since the book does not continue much past Enovid’s FDA approval for use as a contraceptive, what analysis there is of the social impact of the Pill is brief and somewhat simplistic.

Tragedy suffuses this fascinating chronicle of the development of a key medical discovery and the people who made it possible. It is crucial to remember what this development cost, but also what it liberated us from, as reproductive rights remain under siege.

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The Sixth Extinction

Cover image for The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbertby Elizabeth Kolbert

ISBN 9780805092998

“Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.”

Note: I read this book as a part of Doing Dewey’s Non-Fiction Book Club. Check it out or join in!

In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert, a science writer for the New Yorker, covers five of the largest known extinction events in Earth’s history in order to provide some context for the theory that we may currently be in the middle of a sixth such event of similar magnitude. But while previous extinctions are attributable to such natural events as asteroid impacts, ice ages, or volcanic activity, Kolbert marshals ample evidence to suggest that this most recent, and ongoing, event may be a result of human impacts on Earth’s ecosystems. Humans have an unparalleled ability to kill, often faster than a species can reproduce, as was the case for the great auk. Combine that with our ability to destroy or alter habitats, and transport invasive species across the globe, and you have an ongoing ecological catastrophe that is probably already irreversible.

From a modern perspective, it can be easy to forget that the concept of extinction had to be invented, that at one time, it was thought that every species that God had ever created was still living on the earth, part of an essential balance that could not be disturbed. Similarly, for anyone under thirty, the impact theory explanation for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (the death of the dinosaurs) has been generally accepted all our lives, but anyone a bit older will remember how contentious it once was. For some, climate change remains equally controversial. But as Kolbert details, perhaps a third of the carbon that was once sequestered in fossil fuels has now been absorbed into the oceans, causing them to become more acidic, and less hospitable to many forms of life. By taking us through how our understanding of extinction developed, Kolbert makes our modern predicament more understandable.

The topic of extinction offers Kolbert a surprisingly broad scope, freeing her to explore everything from climate change to ocean acidification, and encompassing geology, paleontology, and the study of invasive species. Kolbert traveled extensively as part of her research for the book, from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History in Reykjavik, to One Tree Island and the Great Barrier Reef, and from El Valle de Anton in Panama to Castello Argonese on the Mediterranean. Not far from her own home, she investigates white-nose syndrome, a cold-loving fungus that is killing bats all over the Eastern United States and Canada. Kolbert takes a broad swathe of scientific knowledge and explains it clearly. Although many of the concepts have been simplified significantly, she is careful to note where certain ideas are (or were at one time) controversial, and introduce the varying theories that might account for different events. Her work is also an excellent demonstration of how deeply interlinked things are, and how our impact on one area can have untold consequences.

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Stumbling on Happiness

Cover image for Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbertby Daniel Gilbert

ISBN 978-1-4000-7742-7

“This is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can image its own future, and about how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.”

Realism is the belief that things are in reality as they appear in the mind, provided that all the relevant equipment is working correctly. However, the brain relies on a number of tricks and shortcuts to do its job; otherwise we would always be seeing the blind spot in our field of vision where the optic nerve connects to the retina, and reviewing our memory of something that happened in the past would take precisely as long as the original event. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of the tricks our brains perform to give us an apparently seamless experience of the world, but they are numerous. These quirks and tricks develop because they are generally useful, but sometimes have unusual or detrimental side effects. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert explores how certain elements of cognition contribute to the human tendency to be extremely bad at accurately predicting what will make us happy in the future.

Stumbling on Happiness is an opportunity to explore mental processes we normally take for granted, or accept at face value. For example, people like completion and closure, believing that it is always better to have more information. When asked, people almost always choose certainty over uncertainty. Yet we are more likely to keep thinking about a story if it has an ambiguous ending, since it leaves us with a kernel to turn over in our minds. Would Eleanor & Park be the same if Rainbow Rowell had revealed the three words on the post card? Would Inception have been such a big hit if the totem in the final shot could not be ambiguously interpreted? Would Blade Runner remain popular to this day if not for the question about whether or not Deckard is a replicant? Our love of explanation generally works in our favour because it helps us to understand why negative events occurred, thus reducing their traumatic impact, but applied to positive events, it can destroy our ability to savour those experiences.

Gilbert approaches his topic with a healthy dose of humour. Writing about the potential differences between two peoples’ subject emotion experience of the same thing, he comments that “philosophers have flung themselves headlong at this problem for quite some time with little more than bruises to show for it.” Sometimes the jokes and puns are bad, but mostly they are entertaining, and help make this book accessible for the general reader. However, those who prefer their straight science in their non-fiction reading may grow tired of Gilbert’s humourous tangents, which persist throughout.

Despite the humourous tone, Stumbling on Happiness is rooted in research. In addition to backing up his ideas with numerous studies, Gilbert frequently sets up tests and diagrams that demonstrate the shortcuts our brains take, rather than merely asking the reader to trust his word that they exist. These proofs do have a tendency to prolonging each section, because Gilbert cannot reveal too many details until after the reader has tried the test or thought experiment, but the increase in understanding seems well worth the initial ambiguity.

By the final chapter of the book, you will probably be thoroughly doubting your competency to go about life, and questioning your every prediction about the future. Unfortunately, learning about the foibles of the human mind won’t necessarily help you overcome them, or make you happier. After all, the clinically depressed make some of the most accurate predictions about their future happiness, so a certain amount of delusion appears to be healthy. Gilbert does have an answer about the best way to make the most accurate prediction about how happy something will make you, but unfortunately, some of the same cognitive errors that make us bad at predicting our futures also tend to make us prejudiced against this method, because it is predicated on the idea that we are much more like other people than we are willing to believe.

Highly readable and full of insight, Stumbling on Happiness is illuminating, but its lack of applicability will probably discourage many readers who want a prescription for happiness rather than an explanation of why it is so difficult to achieve. Provided you go in expecting a book about cognitive science and psychology, it is an excellent read that will increase your understanding of the workings of your brain.

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