Category: Good Writing

Book Review: Devices & Desires

I thought it was amusing that the first condoms in history were made from the casings of animal intestines. Yet, when I tried to share this information I was met with the typical head shaking, and entreaties to find different reading material characteristic of me sharing new found knowledge with friends. In my post about Mary Roach’s Stiff, I mentioned how my friends don’t find the interesting tidbits I gleaned about cadavers to be proper cocktail conversation. Well, the same goes for all the interesting tidbits I gathered from reading Andrea Tone’s Devices & Desires.

I am taking a history of science course this semester on the history of women and health in America. As a grad student in an undergrad class, I have to complete extra work to make the requirements. One of the extra assignments was to read and discuss Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America with the other grad student and the professor. I am a fish out of water in this class, having no background whatsoever in women’s issues (aside from, you know being a woman myself), and while I was aware of the timeline for the development of contraceptives there was a lot about them I didn’t know. Thus my excited, and apparently gross, interest in what I learned from the book.

DandDDevices & Desires can be broken roughly into three sections: condoms, the pill, and intrauterine devices (IUDs). The section about condoms was by far the most interesting and engaging. My professor (Karen Walloch) suggested that perhaps this was the section that Tone researched for her thesis, and while that is just speculation it does seem to be the part of the book that the writer was most invested in. Fun fact: when scientists first developed a way for rubber to be shaped and thus used as condoms, companies that today we associate with tires (Firestone, BF Goodrich, Goodyear) all dabbled in condoms.

My favorite chapters in the book dealt with the military’s stance on condoms during WWI, and how they eventually had to cave and endorse them because the health care cost of venereal diseases was through the roof. The book had a few different advertisements and propaganda posters for servicemen urging them to stay away from women that I found highly amusing. Apparently just say no, and taking the moral high ground are no match for a dame in a dress.

After the condom chapters the book tackles the birth control pill. While I found the information interesting, I felt like it fell a little flat. For such a controversial topic, that had such a drastic impact on women’s lives I think Tone could have infused the writing with more personality. It just wasn’t as colorful as the condom chapters. As a science writer, I did really appreciate the description of the research process that went into making synthetic hormones and how these were tested. The initial testing on the pill was done in Puerto Rico, because the researchers/financiers thought there wouldn’t be as much controversy and public push back. They were very wrong. But, if you aren’t interested in the scientific process, I feel like these chapters might drag on for you as a reader.

From the pill, the book moves on to the IUD. Tone focuses on a particular IUD, the Dalkon Shield. I was really shocked by this part of the book. Shocked, and really kind of outraged that I hadn’t heard about this health scandal. In the 1970’s the Dalkon Shield was the cause of more than 200,000 lawsuits due to a high percentage of severe injury among its users. The design of this IUD made it a ticking time bomb that women were sticking into their bodies. Infections (and subsequent Pelvic Inflammatory Disease) caused by the materials used in the device caused severe damage to women’s reproductive systems (even sterility), the device could also perforate the uterine wall, and women who did get pregnant while wearing the device often had children born with severe birth defects.

Lawsuits against the A.H. Robbins Corporation (who marketed the Dalkon Shield) won millions of dollars in damages for women and families that had been affected. The real tragedy in the Dalkon Shield scandal is that the company was well aware of the device’s problems. Internal documents and studies proved that the company knew the device was dangerous, and marketed it anyway. As a result of the scandal, in 1976 the Medical Device Amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act mandated the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first to time test and approve of medical devices.

It is important to note that the major flaw in the Dalkon Shield: a porous, multifilament string that was basically a highway for bacteria straight up into the uterus, isn’t a part of IUDs currently on the market. I know several people who use IUDs and am relieved to know that the devices have been improved since they first debuted on the contraceptive scene. However, the Dalkon Shield story really made me stop and think about the human cost of not only contraceptive devices, but all new medical breakthroughs.

As much as I learned from and was moved by reading the chapters about IUDs in Tone’s book, these chapters left me wanting more. I felt like the book ended very abruptly, and that there was still a lot that could have been said about the topic. My professor pointed out that when you are writing a book like this, you have to choose a place to stop, otherwise you could just go on and on. I understand that, but I think the book could have ended more smoothly.

Overall, I thought Devices & Desires was a great read and I learned a lot from it that I hadn’t been aware of otherwise. The book was a little disjointed in parts, and you have to be invested in seeing it through (and apparently not squeamish) but if you come from an uninformed background like mine, I can almost guarantee you’ll learn something new.

Book Review: Stiff

I have a long list of “to read” books that I had hoped to get through this summer. I’ve read far fewer of them than I had hoped, but Mary Roach’s books were on my list and I recently read her first one, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. She says that she got a lot of weird looks while she was working on the book when she told people she was researching cadavers. Since I read on the train, I received a few similarly questioning looks when people would glimpse the cover with its picture of toe-tagged cadaver feet.

The book is absolutely fascinating, and I probably shared far too many of the facts and interesting bits that I learned with my friends and family. Nothing says light beer drinking conversation like discussing how when someone is in a plane crash, they usually die from the organ damage. This is because the organs are moving faster than the body so when the body smacks into the surface of water and stops, the organs keep going and get damaged when they hit the inside wall of the body. I know my friends really appreciated that tidbit, and by appreciate I mean I was met with “can we stop talking about dead bodies now?” I know that I have good taste in books when my friends automatically cringe when I start a sentence with “So I was reading a book about…”
roach_stiffBut anyway, for a book about cadavers Stiff is charmingly funny. It is written as if the reader is right there alongside the author as she does things like visit a face dissection, explore a body farm, test different ways to get rid of remains, and travel to China in search of a crematorium involved in a human dumpling scandal. Yes, human dumplings. Roach certainly found the most juicy tidbits in the business of dead bodies, but they make for an incredibly interesting book. What happens to cadavers is one of those things that no one wants to talk about, so almost everything in the book came as a new piece of information for me. I appreciated her candid, straightforward approach and the way it mixed with her own commentary and tangents.
Roach is completely comfortable with her own feelings of how awkward and strange some of the things that happen to dead bodies are, and the fact that she is an out of place witness to them. Her inner dialogue about these things is entertaining and approachable and that is what makes being told a story about dead bodies so palatable.
One of the best things about Roach’s book is that there is a sense of balance between awkward/funny and total reverence for the dead and what science (and really all of society) have to gain from bodies donated to research. The dead are treated with respect, and I find that to be an equally important part of the book. It does make a plug for donating your body to science, which might bother some, but I didn’t find it inappropriate. Roach makes it clear what she would want done with her own remains, and also makes a very good case for why people should donate their bodies to science (in spite of some of the experiments that seem undignified). I think suggesting that body donation might be a good way to go is coming from a good place.

Overall, if you can stomach television shows like Bones or CSI, you can stomach Stiff. The subject matter is gross, but the writing is divine and definitely worth your time. I can almost promise that you will learn some things you never knew about, and really might want to know considering we all eventually end up as cadavers.

(Thank you to Marianne over at PrimateProse for recommending Mary Roach!)

Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel

Explaining All Of Human History Shouldn’t Be Hard, Right? So I’m about 15 years late hopping on the band wagon for this one, but I recently read Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book was originally published in 1997 but at that time I was only 9 years old, and most certainly wasn’t ready to ponder the question of why some societies were able to dominate others in the course of human history. But, for my birthday this year my good friend Cassi gave me a copy of Diamond’s book because she’d heard good things about it from her Dad and she thought it was something I would like. For the most part, she was right.

jared-diamondOverall I liked the book a lot, it brought up some really interesting ideas about human history that I had never considered before. But I struggled a little to get through the whole book, reading with the amount of concentration it deserved. Most of my difficulty stemmed from the way I read, which is particularly disjointed and distracted on the train. There are some parts of Diamond’s book that are just really dry, but I don’t think the book would work without these dry patches because explanations are necessary. There are also plenty of anecdotes and more narrative portions to keep the book moving forward.

Guns, Germs, and Steel seeks to answer Yali’s question, and comes back to this concept repeatedly throughout the book. Yali is a member of a native tribe in New Guinea where Diamond did field work. He asks Diamond, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had so little cargo of our own?” There is no single easy answer to this question. It takes Diamond 19 chapters and 465 pages to explain it and even then as he says that only gives him an average of one page per continent per 150 years to compress 13,000 years of history.

So then how do you go about answering a question like Yali’s? When a lot of the context, detail, and narrative is stripped away the main reason Diamond gives is that there are biogeographical differences between the areas of the world where societies developed and where they didn’t. These biogeographical differences include things like the availability of domesticable plants and animals, variations in climate, and differences in the navigability of different continents. Additionally, Diamond talks a lot about intellectual growth through the spread of information, in addition to the spread of more dangerous components of human interaction like weapons and disease.

When you put the context, detail and narrative back in, there are a few points that Diamond makes that hit me pretty hard. One point is the way that contact between developing societies was critical to helping them succeed. For me when I think about societies that are just starting, I assume that the longer they have to develop on their own the better off they would be. But the exact opposite is true. Societies need to develop alongside each other.

Areas like Eurasia that were way better suited for an exchange of information and ideas are the areas that advanced fastest. On the other side, areas like southern Africa and Mesoamerica struggled because their climates (desert and jungles) weren’t suitable for traveling. People weren’t able to connect and because of this not only could they not learn from each other (agriculture, language, etc.) they also didn’t develop important immunities to disease. I feel like I’ve always assumed that a disproportionate amount of resources like food and animals was the reason why some cultures flourished over others. In part the lack of resources in some areas was certainly a factor, but I was really surprised by the idea that the continent itself could have a huge impact.

I think my favorite chapters by far dealt with the Aztec, Inca, and Maya societies and how they were able to be conquered. I think I’ve always been quick to write their fall off as being caused by disease and the superior weapons of the Spanish. I had never really thought about how the isolation of each of these societies also led them to be more trusting – and that this more than anything else is what led to their downfall.

Another point Diamond makes that I found really interesting is that there are so many factors that need to align properly for a society to succeed, and it often comes down to which societies have the best balance. I always think of competition between countries as a bad thing, but Diamond shows that competition is exactly what gave Europe an edge over China when it came to dominating the colonial world. A unified China struggled with implementing new technology because if the rulers didn’t approve then changes didn’t happen. Whereas in Europe with so many small societies competing with each other if one group rejected an idea, another was sure to adopt it and help it spread. But competition also has obvious drawbacks like fighting and wars that cause widespread casualties. It really comes down to having the right amount of competition and conflict, that magical balance that allows a nation to surge ahead.

These are just a few of the ideas that Diamond discusses. I found this book to be very informative, so much so that it was almost difficult to digest sometimes. There is also a ton of background and set up so that the reader will be able to understand his analysis. One place where for me this was tedious was animal domestication. I already knew a lot about animal domestication from my class with animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell last semester, but if I didn’t I am certainly well informed for having read Diamond’s book.

There is a lot of information to be had here, and if you have the stamina and the attention span you could learn a significant amount from Diamond’s book. I do recommend it because it definitely got me thinking about history in a new way. I also think its important to point out that the book stands the test of time. My version has a 2003 update with a new afterward and an additional chapter about Japan, but even so the original text has held up well. I never felt like I was reading something out of date.

So to sum it up, its a good read, but you have to really want to read it. This isn’t a beach book or something to read on the train (like I did) it deserves your full attention, and if you can’t give it I’m not sure you’ll make it through.

Book Review: Ghost Hunters

When I was six my parents, brother and I moved to a cute brick house just the rights size for us. It hadn’t been lived in for a few years because the elderly couple that had owned it passed away in hospice, while a caretaker maintained the house. When my parents bought it, the house was a blast from the past. Pale yellow bathroom fixtures, peeling linoleum floors, blue eagle kitchen wallpaper, mustard yellow velour couch, seafoam green paint in the living room. Because the home’s previous owners had passed away, some strange/awesome/old features (like that couch) got tossed in with the sale.

Moving meant that for the first time in our lives my brother (slightly older) and I would each get our own room. My room was going to be pink, and it was going to be Aladdin and Jasmine themed and I was thrilled. That is – I was thrilled until the kids down the street told me the “truth” my parents were hiding. The house, specifically MY room, was haunted.

Obviously, the house was haunted. Old people lived there, and they DIED. Of course they came back to haunt the house. Specifically, I was told, they haunted my closet. The proof of this haunting was the fact that sticks and leaves stuffed in the mail slot of the house while it was unoccupied waiting for sale MYSTERIOUSLY disappeared. No one lived there, so then who moved them, right? Clearly the answer was ghosts, and what ghost wouldn’t like being trapped in a closet?

At the wise old age of six I was skeptical, but didn’t understand enough about real estate to know that prior to showing a house any real estate agent would remove random detritus shoved through the mail slot by pesky neighborhood kids. When I reported my news of the haunting to my Mom she informed me that there was no such thing as ghosts. But then why did I always check to make sure the closet was shut firmly before going to bed? Why did I RUN up the basement stairs every time I had to go down there? Why did the old furniture and fixtures seem like the perfect backdrop for a ghost story?

I’ve now lived in that house for over 15 years, and I’ve never had a close encounter of the ghostly kind. But the ghost story told to me back then about my haunted closet is to my memory my first real encounter with the supernatural. Flash forward to my college years, and my interest in ghost stories was again peaked by the Discovery Channel show A Haunting. My roommate and I started watching A Haunting every weekday because it was on at 3pm, when we didn’t have class. We quickly became enthralled, coming to such conclusions as “it always happens to the Catholics” and “blessing your new home is asking for it.”

I’ve never felt any otherwordly connection to spirits or the like, but I find it hard to dismiss the possibility of life after death all together. Just because there is no proof, or at least no definitive proof, doesn’t mean hinky things don’t happen, right? So with this background and frame of mind, I was all too excited to read “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death” by Deborah Blum.

Wm_jamesThose who read my blog regularly know that I’m studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I have Deb Blum as a professor. No, she doesn’t require or even ask us to read her books. Yes, I’ve already gotten my grades for the semester, and no, I’m not sucking up by reading through her books. I’m curious about the work of the person I’m learning from. I’ve given my thoughts on Poisoner’s Handbook, and Love At Goon Park & The Monkey Wars in previous posts – and just want to share a few reflections from Ghost Hunters.

The book chronicles the rise of the American and British Societies for Psychical Research, through several characters, most dominantly Edmund Gurney, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Richard Hodgson, and William James (brother of the writer Henry James – The Aspern Papers, the Turn of the Screw, etc.) and of course the famous medium Leonora Piper. These people set out in the 1880’s to try to prove the existence of life after death. Obviously, since this is something that has yet to be determined 130 years later, they did not succeed. But what they did do was devote their lives to trying to make psychical research a legitimate science.

The researchers studied phenomenon like slate writing, floating furniture, the appearance of specters (white floating blobs, etc.) strange lights, blowing curtains, and the claims by mediums that they could speak to the dearly departed. The majority of what the researchers did was expose fraud. But there was one medium, that the majority of psychical researchers believed in – Mrs. Piper. This medium stood out for the fact that she didn’t charge for sittings, and wasn’t making money off of her “abilities.” One of the most interesting experiments with the medium described in Blum’s book is the “cross-correspondence” study.

The term telepathy was developed by the first psychical researchers to describe the ability to communicate thoughts mentally. They set up an experiment to see if the spirits of people who had died would be able to take a thought conveyed by a medium, and transmit it to a different medium. Mrs. Piper was sent to London, the medium Margaret Verrall was in Cambridge, and Alice Kipling Fleming (sister of Rudyard Kipling) was in India. Myers, Gurney, and Hodgson were by this time deceased, so the remaining psychical researchers set out to communicate with their old colleagues.

Lines of poems and words in Greek and Latin (languages unknown to the mediums) were reportedly conveyed between the mediums in their different locations. But is that evidence of life after death, or telepathy, or spiritual communication? I don’t know. At the time (in the early 1900’s) it wasn’t enough proof. The argument was that the psychical researchers wanted so badly to prove that they could communicate with their departed colleagues and show that the mediums were real, that their desires colored the study and skewed results. Perhaps making something out of nothing. Perhaps so dedicated and well-intentioned that they did summon up spiritual communication.

What I like most about Ghost Hunters is that Blum never decides whether any of the experiments did or did not prove the existence of life after death. I don’t see how she could. I think that even today, while there are so many “events” that can’t be explained away as tricks, smoke and mirrors, or active imaginations, there is still nothing definitive to show that spirits exist. I don’t think there ever will be. I think that this is a case where, “for those who believe no proof is necessary, for those who don’t believe no proof is possible” (Stuart Chase.)

While I am a firm believer that nothing haunts my closet, I can’t explain “the unexplained” and I won’t try. But thats not what Ghost Hunters is about anyway. It is a fascinating history of the work of several researchers (and friends) trying to make sense of the things that go bump in the night using the scientific experimental standards they believed in most. Ultimately I think it comes down to the belief that eventually science can explain everything – and having to accept that it hasn’t, and maybe never will.

For me, the drama in the book is not will the psychical experiments be successful but rather, will they ever be accepted? Ghost Hunters tackles the issue of exclusivity in the scientific community and examines where scientists draw their line in the sand as far as what should and should not count as science. The definition of science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. Do ghost hunters count? Should they count? Who gets to decide what is science and what is a waste of time?

Of the books that I have read by Blum, I enjoyed Ghost Hunters the most. I love science, but sometimes even the best science books can get confusing and having to work to maintain clarity, I lose interest. The sign of a great writer is to be able to take a subject and weave together the stories of all the different people involved in developing that subject, without getting the reader lost. I was never confused while reading Ghost Hunters about who was who or what was going on. I was enthralled from start to finish – not because I love a good ghost story, but because I love the richness of science history, and the real stories of these rogue researchers.


I’ve known for a long time that science can be intimidating to people. It intimidates me sometimes and I read and write about science topics everyday. But I had never considered the idea that the words used in science would spark an actual phobia. Yet there is such a thing – Hellenologophobia is the fear of Greek terms or complex science terminology (I know its true, because the Internet told me so.) 
To describe the sensation of fear you could talk about any number of things: wide eyes, arms and legs frozen stiff (paralyzed in fright, if you will,) rapid heart beat, pain, sweating, surprise, shock, something sudden, dangerous, deadly, dark, loss of breath, holding your breath, breathing heavily. Something scary.

Not my favorite, but not THAT scary. Photo by Erin Podolak

There are two things that I would say particularly freak me out: spiders and people jumping out of the dark. The spiders are relatively self-explanatory, I mean some spiders can kill you, they crawl on you, and they could be anywhere. People jumping out of the dark comes from the idea of things jumping out of my closet, made all the more scary by the fact that in movies bad things always happen when someone jumps out from a dark corner to attack. 

But would I say that these are fears? Not really. I take no special precautions in life to avoid spiders or dark enclosed spaces. I might flail quite a bit should I find a spider on my clothes, but that is hardly comparable to a phobia. By definition a phobia is a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it. 
So what about those who suffer from Hellenologophobia? Is the idea of encountering a scientific term so horrifying that all steps should be taken to avoid any chance of “chromatin” or “genome” from crossing your path? For some people, it is. I am not a therapist, or in any way, shape or form qualified to offer medical advice, but if you want to learn more about phobias I suggest checking out the Mayo Clinic’s webpage dedicated to phobias it has a lot of great information. I will also stress that if you think you are suffering from a phobia, you should consult a physician who specializes in mental health to get a real, informed opinion. 
But anyway since the idea of science seeming scary and unapproachable to the public is largely why I have this blog, realizing that there are people who suffer from a condition of fearing the words used to describe science reminded me why I do what I do. What scientific research takes place, and what discoveries are made is something I have no control over, but the words used to describe it all – that I can control. The words are what I have spent so much time specializing in, hoping to make them less scary. 
I want to make science less intimidating, and show people who might not have a science background that science stories are interesting and important. I’ve been wondering lately if I’m actually any good at science communication or if I should switch tracks (like that is possible with half a Master’s degree.) I wonder sometimes if loving what I do is enough to counter the fumbles I make, the beginners mistakes, the idea that I am so far from being a “brilliant” writer that I will never get anyone to pay me for a science story. I hope it is, because I don’t want to stop making sense of the words and taking the fear out of science.
For the record: Chromatin is a material made up of protein, RNA and DNA that the chromosomes of eukaryotes (multi-celled organisms) are made of. (Chromosomes are very small structures, found in the nucleus (center) of most cells that carries the genetic code.)
A Genome is the set of chromosomes in a cell that represents the complete set of genes and genetic information (the DNA) that it takes to make that organism. Humans typically have 46 chromosomes – 23 from the mother and 23 from the father.