Weekend Shorts: Science Ladies on Audio

I’ve been meaning to throw this post together for ages, but it turns out that I am super embarrassed by my complete inability to separate two of these books in my brain and thus have had an almost complete inability to tell y’all about them. But the time has finally come to admit to my failures, mention to you some really awesome books, and promise myself not to make silly mistakes in the future.

What books have I got permanently confused?

Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Rise of the Rocket GirlsHidden FiguresYou see, what had happened was, I really wanted to listen to Hidden Figures, but it had a miles-long holds list. Then I remembered that there also existed Rise of the Rocket Girls, with a slightly shorter holds list, so I waited patiently for that. And then, immediately after finishing it, Hidden Figures came in. And so I listened to two books about a large cast of women working as computers for various parts of the space program back to back. This was fine, as far as listening to things goes, but terrible if you want to tell other people what you think.

Aside from my own mistakes, part of it is also that these books do have large casts of characters, and so even while listening to each of them I found myself being like, wait, who is this? Do I know her? Is she new? Ah, whatever, I’ll figure it out later.

Both books are interesting looks into history at long-ignored people who did important things, both look at these women’s lives both at work and at home, and both talk of how white dudes totally didn’t want these jobs until they totally did and how that affected the work. If I could go back and listen to just one, I’d pick Hidden Figures as it is a little more tightly written and easier to follow, but they’re both quite good.

And now, books I’m not confusing for other books:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI have no idea why this book took me so long to get around to. If you’ve also been putting it off, you should definitely check it out.

There are two stories packed into this book: one about the cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks that became both immortal and hugely important to science, and one about Henrietta Lacks’s family and how they live in the shadow of these cells but reap essentially no benefit from them. For most of the book, I think Skloot does a good job of combining these two stories to give a broader picture of the health care industry, medical ethics, science as a calling vs. science as a money-making industry, and of course race and class and the huge disparity in healthcare based on those things.

Toward the end I felt like the family story went a little off the rails and I found myself checking my audiobook timer to see how much was left a little too often, but the vast majority of the book was solid, and solidly awesome. Very much recommend.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper
Word by WordThis doesn’t exactly fit the science (SCIENCE!) theme I’m going for, being a book about dictionaries, but this is my blog and I say it’s close enough!

Stamper is a lexicographer (which certainly sounds science-y) for Merriam-Webster and in this book she takes the reader through the process of writing a dictionary, which is SO HARD, guys. She writes about defining words like “that”, choosing which words go into which versions of the dictionary, dealing with people who are upset about certain words and definitions, dealing with the fact that words won’t stop changing, and about the intricate nuances of the dictionary’s style guide, among other scintillating (yeah, kind of, actually) topics.

I loved the heck out of this book, and I even got my husband to tear his focus away from the internet while I listened to it on a road trip, so even if you’re not the nerdiest word nerd that ever loved words I think you’ll find some good stuff in this book.

Weekend Shorts: Science! on Audio

Ahhhh, science (science!). I love it. It is inescapable. It is fascinating. But, especially after reading the second book I’m going to talk about today, I am so glad I’m not a professional scientist. Armchair science is so much more fun! Let’s find out why…

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach
GruntMary Roach is my favorite pop-science writer, so I had to pick up this book even though I have very little inherent interest in military anything. Luckily, this is why Roach is my favorite pop-science writer — she assumes that you have no interest in her topic and finds ways to make you interested.

In this book Roach covers a zillion different science-y military things, some of which you will find absolutely fascinating (the fact that IEDs blow off more than legs, and the science behind the penis transplants that are becoming more routine for men hit by said IEDs), and some of which are just regular interesting (the fact that an actual fashion designer is employed by the military to design uniforms). To me, the best bits are what I consider quintessential Mary Roach — sex, poop, and farts. They’re everywhere!

This was not my favorite of Roach’s books, but I’m definitely glad I listened to it and am looking forward to seeing what topic she tackles next.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
Lab GirlThis was a book club pick in the category: “Books I pick for book club so that I will actually get around to reading them.” I had heard good things, including from book clubbers, and we hadn’t read a not-fiction book in a while, so, sold!

Lab Girl is Hope Jahren’s memoir of both her personal life and her science life, and often both at the same time. I’ll admit here that I preferred the science and lab stories to the personal stories, but of course you really need both to understand either.

Jahren is currently a pretty awesome, award-winning earth scientist, but this memoir is about the times when she was a pretty awesome but largely unrecognized and unfunded earth scientist. She had to build labs from scratch and with begged and borrowed equipment, she had to subsist on almost nothing and pay her research assistants even less, and she had to somehow do enough awesome science to keep getting just enough funding to keep going. This is the part of academic science that is just awful.

But in the midst of all that horribleness, Jahren managed to have a life and a lab and some very exciting adventures, from the good and weird excitement of an impromptu 8-hour-one-way-side trip with students from a lab site in Georgia to a monkey habitat in Miami to the terrifying excitement of a completely avoidable car accident in the mountains of Colorado while on a penny-pinching trip to a conference. Jahren has a knack for telling these stories in a way that makes you wish you had been there and very glad you weren’t.

The unexpected star of this memoir is her perpetual lab assistant and obvious BFF(aeae) Bill, who is that weird science guy that does science for the sake of it and for barely any monetary compensation, and who is willing to live in a car that doesn’t reverse and can’t be turned off at gas stations or in a closet in the college lab building and drives 50 miles per hour and has long hippie hair until he suddenly doesn’t and who is willing to put up with all of Jahren’s crap for unknown reasons. My book clubbers were very disappointed when they got to the part of the book where Jahren meets her husband and said husband is not Bill, but I’m pretty sure the three of them are all fine with how things turned out.

I’ve been on a celebrity-funny-lady-only memoir kick of late, and this was a good reminder that other people have interesting and often amusing lives as well.

What are you guys reading this week?

What If?, by Randall Munroe

What If?Have you read and liked xkcd? Do you enjoy learning about science through hypothetical situations that will NEVER EVER happen (well, one hopes)? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you should probably obtain this book. If the answer to both is yes, you should probably purchase seven of these books, the better to give away to unsuspecting stick figures.

Basically, Munroe writes this weird little webcomic that sometimes delves into sciencey things because Munroe is a scientist, and recently he started inviting his comic readers to ask him questions of the absurd variety, which he answers on a regular basis in his own stick-figure-based, sarcastic but completely serious way. A few dozen of those lovely questions and their often convoluted answers, along with some strange and/or creepy questions that Munroe does not answer, appear in this book.

This book answers the question, what if Mythbusters took on theoretical physics? You’d get some reasonably well researched, humorously thoughtful answers, as well as the “Jamie want big boom” extensions — what if we used more power? More than that? More than that? What if we made this smaller and smaller and smaller? How far can we take this before the universe explodes?

Unlike Mythbusters, though, the answer is usually “surprisingly far.” Munroe covers some crazy scenarios, from a baseball somehow thrown at nearly the speed of light to a “jet” pack powered by machine guns to a person magically losing his DNA to a rainstorm letting out its entire output in one giant drop, and it turns out that while most of these scenarios are going to cause at least a little death and destruction, only a few of them are going to lead to human extinction. I’m very glad that all of these scenarios are highly unlikely.

I read this book through from beginning to end, one or two or three chapters at a time during breakfast, but my husband would just pick up the book when he was bored and flip to a random chapter and see what was up. Both ways are good, I think, and if you’ve got a blank space on your coffee table that wants to be filled, you could do worse than picking up this book!

Recommendation: For almost everyone, but especially nerds.

Rating: 10/10

Gulp, by Mary Roach

GulpYay Mary Roach! This is her newest book and the only one I hadn’t read (well, listened to) yet, so of course this was book number one on the Great Annual McCarty Northern Migration Road Trip. I might need a better name for that. Regardless, we had fourteen hours each way to spend in the car, and this took up a highly amusing eight and a half of them on the first day. Victory!

Just like World War Z before it, this was a fantastic book for a road trip. Roach covers many topics on her way from the top of the alimentary canal to the bottom, all of them fascinating, and the narrator makes sure to give the craziest ones the right emphasis to keep your attention from wandering too far.

And seriously, there’s some crazy stuff. Scott managed to sleep through probably the most insane chapter, that on Alexis St. Martin and William Beaumont. The former was a man who, because of reasons, had a hole in his side that went straight through to his stomach; the latter was a man who, because of science reasons, more or less enslaved St. Martin while also performing gastrointestinal experiments on him. As you do?

Outside of that horror show, there are much nicer chapters on things like why we disdain certain foods (and how propaganda can fix that), how spit works, a crazy thing called megacolon, and, because it’s Mary Roach, a whole chapter on farts.

Oh! And one more chapter, that actually came up in a recent book club discussion of Orange is the New Black, titled “Up Theirs: The alimentary canal as criminal accomplice.” I’m pretty sure I sold Gulp to my book club on that chapter alone…

As always with Mary Roach, I learned fascinating things that I hadn’t realized I had always wanted to know right alongside fascinating things that I would kind of prefer never to know again, and somehow both kinds of facts were equally entertaining. I love the way she manages to find fancy science people to talk about things like spit and farts and how she does so much research that she could clearly keep writing this book for several more chapters but must content herself with lengthy, well-researched, and hilarious asides (probably footnotes in print?). Non-fiction is so much more fun the Mary Roach way.

Recommendation: For people who love facts about farts, which is, like, everyone, right?

Rating: 8/10

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

StiffMary Roach is one of the few nonfiction authors whom I have on my list of “authors whose entire backlist I should go read right now,” which is partially because I just don’t read that much nonfiction but mostly because Mary Roach writes that special kind of nonfiction that doesn’t feel like learning and therefore I am more willing to listen to it!

And I do mean listen — I don’t actually have any experience with Mary Roach in print form because I take her on road trips with me instead! This is good, because I get to listen to awesome and weird and often gross things that help keep me awake in the umpteenth hour of driving, but also kind of bad because the books end up running together with all the other podcasts and NPR segments I listen to.

That’s not so much a problem with this book, Roach’s first and the last of her backlist I had yet to read (now on to her newest book, Gulp!), because it’s about dead bodies and what strange things we do with them, like donating them to science or breaking them down via composting or plastinating them (is that a verb? I’m going with it) and showing them off to people who can’t decide whether to be intrigued or creeped out. I don’t hear much about that on NPR these days…

I think I was most interested by the parts about donating bodies to science and what sorts of rules and regulations there are for using said bodies and also the strange visceral reactions people have to the use of their dead relatives. I found it strange that a person might have a problem with a relative becoming a crash test dummy or otherwise being an entire body doing something gross or embarrassing for a live person, but be perfectly fine having a relative sort of chopped up into pieces suitable for use on smaller-scale experiments.

I also liked the foray into the funeral business and the true creepiness that is the embalming and beautifying process for those open-casket funerals (which will not be happening to any relatives on my watch, because seriously, creepy), and was supremely grossed out by the chapter on head transplants and the scientific experiments on animals who deserved better from life than to suffer that indignity.

But as always, no matter whether I’m amused or disgusted by what Roach is talking about, she makes the topic as accessible and humorous as possible. I think Roach could do wonders for education if she sat down and wrote a science curriculum or two, but then I wouldn’t have her available to write books for me, so I guess those kids will just have to deal with what they’ve got!

Recommendation: For people with strong stomachs and a love of weird science trivia.

Rating: 7/10

How the Hippies Saved Physics, by David Kaiser

Hey, look, I finally finished this book, first mentioned on the blog back at the end of July. I had to return the book pictured, but then found the audio version on OverDrive, so I couldn’t help but listen, right?


Okay, so. First of all, this book is not exactly about how hippies saved physics. The title is based off of some study called How the Irish Saved Civilization, and the hyperbole is intentional, so I guess I’ll let it slide. It is about hippies, and about hippies doing physics, and about hippies doing really weird things with physics, so if you’re into that sort of thing you won’t be disappointed.

On the actual surviving physics side of things, there’s a lot of info in the book about quantum physics and how absolutely insane it is, with entangled particles and the double slit experiment and quantum encryption and of course Schrödinger’s cat, which is probably still causing (and not causing) Schrödinger endless amounts of frustration.

I majored in physics, so mostly in this part I was like yeah yeah whatever none of this is really new or interesting.


Soooooo it turns out that more than one physicist in the 60s spent some time doing research into extrasensory perception, on the government’s dime. And then some more on other people’s dimes. And that is really the selling point of this book for me, because WHAT. Apparently there were some physics dudes and chicks totally into that Uri Gellar guy and other people who claimed to be able to see the future or see the other side of a playing card or whatever, and the U.S. government was like, well, we’d better play it safe and pour some money into this research just in case the Ruskies get there first. Fantastic! And even when said government stopped pouring money in and most people were like, eh, whatever, probably not, there were still physicists who were like, but MAYBE.

And I am a sucker for a crazy person story, so I liked this part of the book, and the part where Kaiser goes off about one of the non-government money-pouring people who totally turned out to be a murderer. WHAT.

Also, I love the guy who narrates the audiobook (he also did The Disappearing Spoon), whose delightful voice got me through all the boring parts just fine. I totally want to go find a list of his work and see if he’s done any other books I’m interested in reading.

Recommendation: For those who need some crazy science-related anecdotes to throw around at parties.

Rating: 7/10

Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

Ah, Mary Roach. It’s been awhile. How you been? Oh, you’ve been gallivanting around the world talking to astronauts and wannabe astronauts and chimponauts and people who pretend to be astronauts for SCIENCE? Tell me more!

And she does! There is much more than I would have guessed to tell about space, that final frontier and whatnot. Some of it I had heard before, like the bit about how a certain president was not a fan of lady astronauts, and oddly some of it I heard on a podcast referencing Packing for Mars after I had started the book but before I got to the part they referenced. That was odd.

Other bits I had not heard but made sense, and were kind of intriguing, like the whole chimps in space program and how it totally ruined the start of our space race and how at one point there was a human testing a spacesuit to see if it was humane for chimps, except that the point of the chimp wearing the spacesuit was to see if it was safe for humans. Oh, science. And the part where she goes off to Japan to visit their astronaut training camp or whatever and you find out that Japanese astronaut candidates have to fold 1000 paper cranes for luck and psychological testing. On that basis alone, I am not cut out to be an astronaut.

And, of course, in true Mary Roach fashion, there were also bits about sex in space and poop in space that I didn’t know I didn’t need to know until I knew them. Darn her! Suffice it to say that it is difficult to do both, and so NASA at least tries to avoid them when at all possible. Also, you shouldn’t talk about your poo problems on a live microphone. For your sake AND everyone else’s.

I’m wondering if my lack of love for Spook is content-based or narrator-based, because the woman who narrates this one also did Bonk and I liked the latter equally as much as this current one. I think this narrator has an excellent blend of “Wow, did you know this?” and “Wow, did you need to know this?” and sometimes, “Wow, you definitely don’t need to know this but it’s written down so I’m gonna have to tell you anyway,” like when Roach writes about her lack of knowledge about body odor in the crotchal region, not for lack of trying ew. Sorry. I heard it, so you have to, too!

I promise most of the other fun facts in this book are actually fun, and it’s about space! I really don’t think you can go wrong.

Recommendation: For lovers of SCIENCE and crazy people who write about science and obscure factoids disguised as science.

Rating: 8/10

(What’s in a Name Challenge)

Space space wanna go to space yes please space. Space space. Go to space.
Better buy a telescope. Wanna see me. Buy a telescope. Gonna be in space.
I’m in space.

The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean

My favorite element is antimony, for the most arbitrary of reasons — Sb are the initials of both antimony and a nickname I had in high school. That’s it. That’s all I knew about antimony before reading this book. Now I know two important things about it: a) there used to be people who liked antimony more than I do, to the point where they were willing to dig it out of feces, and b) it’s used to make the strongest known superacid. I hope you can figure out which of these I appreciate more.

If you have a favorite element, or if you want one, you should pick up this book, because it will tell you everything you never knew you wanted to know about the periodic table.

There are element-specific facts, like those about antimony, and scientist-specific facts, including long passages about Mendeleev, the Curies, and various other scientists I can’t remember off the top of my head. There are also bits about alchemy, of course, and how aluminium (which is really annoying to hear over and over on the audiobook) became so amazingly devalued, and how Tycho Brahe may have had more than one fake nose, because you always need a good one for the fancy people.

And, I mean, that’s the whole book, really, is facts, which is a fun time and leads to a lot of me going, “Oh! Did you know that Paul McCartney got a rhodium record for making all the music, because rhodium is apparently awesomer than platinum?” at dinners with people who liked me better five minutes ago. But there’s nothing wrong with that!

Recommendation: It appeals to the science nerd and trivia nerd in me, so if you’ve got one of those, go for it!

Rating: 8/10

(A to Z Challenge)

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach

Hello again, Mary Roach. You are ever so delightful.

In this book, Roach does indeed tackle the afterlife, starting with a bit of religion and then really focusing on spirits and mediums (media?) for the rest of the book. It’s not nearly as titillating as Bonk, but I do know a heck of a lot more about spirit phenomena than I did before!

My favorite part: in the religion section, Roach writes about reincarnation and spends some time with a reincarnation researcher in… India, I think… who finds cases where children are claiming to be remembering past lives and then going to where they live and where they think they used to live to try to fact-check the situation. I had never thought about people doing that — it makes perfect sense, but is almost too easy, yes?

Recommendation: Good for a car trip and for the spooks-enthusiast, but not the most thrilling book you’ll read all year.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

My friend Pat got this book a few years ago as a sort of graduation present from our physics department faculty (I got World Without End, which I have yet to crack open), which caused a lot of snickering amongst all present, because no matter how old you are, you are twelve when it comes to sex. This is a fact.

I have no idea if he read it or how he liked it, but the fact that I remember him getting it, coupled with the existence on the internets of a general love for Mary Roach, convinced me it would be an excellent companion for my 10.5+ hour solo road trip up to Virginia this past weekend. I was absolutely not disappointed.

To start off, Roach’s writing style is lovely. She knows her stuff, and often how ridiculous her stuff is, and she puts it across in a very conversational style with tangents and footnotes and pauses to think about what she’s just written galore. And the narrator of this book, who I believe I’ve heard on another book at some point, picks up that conversational quality quite easily — oftentimes you can hear her smiling or grimacing or making that face you make when something absolutely mortifies you to even think about. I don’t even know what it’s called, but I heard it!

Then, of course, there’s the subject matter. I have to admit that while I was listening I wasn’t sure I would retain a lot of the facts, what with the driving and paying attention to the road and whatnot, but after I was done I was easily able to relay to my husband the pertinent info. Like that there are men who masturbate by putting things up their urethras (ouch?). Or that Marie Bonaparte (related to that one Bonaparte guy) had her clitoris surgically moved closer to her vagina in an attempt to make her sex better (OUCH, and also EUCCHH). Oh, and that if you get your dog neutered, you can get him prosthetic testicles to make him feel better about himself (eh?). And so much more.

What I think I loved about this book most was that unlike certain other non-fiction books I’ve listened to, Bonk doesn’t have an agenda other than entertaining you and providing you with endless trivia to share at family gatherings. Some bits seemed to drag on a little longer than strictly necessary, but I never felt like Roach was trying to beat one concept or another into my head.

Recommendation: This is for, you know, people who are interested in sex. I would probably not give this to teenagers, lest they get ideas that they didn’t already have. Like that urethra thing. :shudder:

Rating: 9/10
(A to Z Challenge)