Tag Archives: science writing


Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the SeaOctopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea by Katherine Harmon Courage

Octopus! is a fascinating exploration that is less about the creature itself (the plural of which we are told not more than a few pages in, is octopuses because of the word’s Greek origin, not octopi) as it is humanity’s relation with it. The book begins with a look at how these creatures are caught and from then goes on to examine everything from the role of the octopus in our cuisine to how the organism is informing studies of camouflage, robotics, and artificial intelligence. A large portion of the work is about those who are working to understand the cephalopod’s physiology—from the fluid mechanics of how it jets around in water to the distributed intelligence that likely helps control its arms to how cells in its skin detect the surrounding conditions and allow it to camouflage itself so quickly (not simply changing color but also texture and even the polarization of reflected light).

All of this means that as much as Courage wants us to take the octopus on its own terms, throughout the book the animal is continually seen through the lens of its relationship (and usefulness) to humans. In this respect, the title needs the exclamation point, because despite the fascinating topic, the book itself reads at times like an extended Scientific American article, or a series of these articles put together (and it did, admittedly, start as something like that): a ride-along on an octopus fishing boat, a visit to a robotics lab on the Italian coast or an octopus-processing plant in NYC, complete with a cascading cast of experts and scientists who add their perspective to the author’s account. It makes for a lot of information but not necessarily a cohesive narrative.

Besides the octopus and our interactions with it (on boat, plate, and lab) the book lacks an organizing or overarching theme. We’re not given a clear picture of Courage’s own story regarding the subject: how did she develop such an interest in the octopus that she was driven to seek out experts around the world? This might have helped tie things together, if the author herself played a larger role in the narrative. Courage’s writing style was also at times uneven, moving abruptly from expert scientific exposition (which was usually clear and sharp and detailed, as when, for instance, she offers an extensive discussion of editing in the octopus gene sequence) to random allusions of octopus depictions in comics, pop culture, horror films, and even erotica. A more structured discussion of any of these topics would have added to the treatment, but presented as they were without context or discussion (at times it seemed just for comedic effect) they seemed abrupt or even jarring. Despite these flaws, the book was rich with fascinating detail regarding these amazing invertebrates.

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous MoldsMagical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds by George W. Hudler

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was without a doubt the worst book about mushrooms that I’ve ever read. Now, to be fair, I’m relatively certain it’s only the second book about mushrooms I’ve ever read, but it was still much less than satisfying. Writing a compelling science book, and one about a subject as far-ranging and yet obscure as fungus, has to be difficult. But as fascinating as the subject matter may be (and I’m not speaking ironically when I admit I find this particular topic incredibly interesting), unless the author can make that subject come to life, can show the information instead of simply telling it, the exploration will be tedium.

I am in the intended audience for this book: someone without a background in mycology but who is equal parts fascinated and horrified by the kingdom of organisms known as fungi. They’re such a twilight concept: plant-like, yet not plants, little understood or explored by biology at large, causing disease and rot yet also a pharmacopeia of beneficial medicines and psychotropic drugs. They’re as mysterious to most as their most familiar representation: the mushrooms that spring up on summer lawns almost overnight. And like mushrooms, most of what they are remains hidden beneath the soil.

In this book, the author is particularly interested in showing the relationship between the world of fungus and the human world. He wants to highlight species of fungus that have played a role or continue to play an important or potentially important role in human affairs. This includes disease-causing fungi, historically beneficial fungi (like the yeasts that make our bread rise, ferment our beer, and have, arguably, shaped the entire course of human civilization), fungi that cause disease in our crops and trees, and fungi that decay our homes and buildings.

And as you would expect for someone interested in fungi, there are a lot of truly interesting things in here. We get an introduction to the fungal kingdom in general, how they work and how they do the things they do from the point of view of a mycologist. The author then goes through each of his topics in turn with the rigor of an undergraduate survey course (as, incidentally, the book is based upon). I was especially fascinated at the role fungi plays in the fermentation of bread, beer, and wine (I’m currently cultivating in my “fermentation corner” in our kitchen a sourdough starter as well as a jar of kumbucha, a mildly fermented tea) as well as the ability for many to create the chemicals from which we derive many of our antibiotics that still resist laboratory synthesis.

The author is obviously passionate about his topic and eager to pass this along. If nothing else, he succeeds in illustrating the vast scope of influence that fungi have on human life. For all this intention though– and despite the rich content itself, many parts of which could have entailed entire books to themselves– the reading was a drag. In fact, the various chapters often felt like little more than a series of Wikipedia articles: well-written and informative but missing the elusive spark that turns organized knowledge into something more, that translates information into a cohesive and engaging dialogue with the reader.

The entire work is a series of interesting anecdotes. Take the author’s treatment of psychotropic mushrooms. He analyzes the chemical effects that such mushrooms have on the human brain, surveys how they are used in different cultures, and even goes into the history of the investigators in the West who studied the species and brought them to the attention of society at large. This is a fascinating tale, but it’s simply told as you would tell it in a lecture. It’s missing something. It does not reach out and pull the reader into what should be a compelling story that involves Central American tribes, LSD, and academic scandal.

It may not be fair to criticize a book– and one from what I can tell one that is free of errors and obviously written by an expert in the field– that nonetheless does an important job. It brings to light things that are little understood but that have a huge and often ignored effect on human life and flourishing. Still– as interesting as the content was, there’s no escaping the fact that something was lacking: the book was boring.

There are dozens of things to learn in this book to fascinate and horrify, but they’re all passed over from one to the other like you’re on a tour or– as I’ll say again, as it seems the most apt analogy– like you’re reading a series of Wikipedia articles. Perhaps that illustrates one of the challenges in tackling this field: the desire to provide an adequate survey of a huge topic.

One final example. I’ll never forget the one of the most poignant image I have in my memory related to fungi: the time-lapse photography in Discover Channel’s Planet Earth documentary showing mushrooms growing out the bodies of insects on a jungle floor. It was like something out of science fiction. Whether the insects were already dead or still living when infected, they were being consumed from within by something that seemed terrifying and alien and was going to spread spores so it could keep doing this. In this book you might learn a bit about those fungi, but you won’t get any of that wonder and horror: it will simply be another short stop on a tour.

Tree, A Life Story

Tree: A Life StoryTree: A Life Story by David Suzuki

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is an idea that if you know something well enough—if you spend some time learning about it and seeing all of its internal and external connections—you cannot help but loving it. I’m not entirely sure this is true, though I’d like to believe it is. I think it is an important aspect of environmentalism and likely the reason why so many scientists become conservationists: sometimes it is only by careful and deliberate study that the inherent value of an organism or system becomes apparent.

I also think this is the point of good nature writing: making the reader take a long look at something. Really study it. Get to know deeply. By doing so, rational analysis becomes something more: it becomes a form of art, of contemplation, maybe even a form of worship. It certainly can become a form of excellent literature and, in the case of this book, an opportunity for combining knowledge, connection, and empathy.

Trees fascinate me. They are ubiquitous and prosaic, and yet they’re also ancient, silent, and somehow unknowable. Have you ever stopped and simply considered how large they are? How a single specimen can tower over your home physically and cast its sheltering shade over your entire life temporally? And yet, how much do most of us really know about them? What’s going on inside the bark and beneath the soil? What unseen networks do they play a role within?

I write about trees. I titled my first collection of short stories after them. And for a long time I’ve been looking for a book that captures what they are and more importantly teaches me things about them that I didn’t know. This book, by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady, went a long way toward filling that tree-shaped hole in my head I’ve been walking around with. Grady, a Canadian science writer, and Suzuki, a zoologist, academic, and environmentalist, team up to do something that at first blush appears fairly simple: they want to write the life story of a single tree, in particular a Douglas-fir growing outside a British Columbian cabin retreat.

Of course it’s not that simple. Trying to focus on one aspect of nature—let alone a single tree—is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Grady and Suzuki use the life cycle of a single Douglas-fir, from germination to death, as a lens to explore trees in general, the zoology and botany of British Columbia, and the importance of forests throughout the world. Yet the single tree itself functions effectively as a unifying thread throughout the book, and of course along the way we get a wealth of information about the evolution, reproduction, growth, morphology, taxonomy, and mystery of trees.

Tree, A Life Story is a wealth of information, yet it is consistently readable and compelling. As with any good nature book, we learn the object itself and we also learn the impossibility of seeing the object alone or isolated. We get a glimpse of the essential connectivity of trees with each other, with wildlife and fungi, and with other plants. What was most surprising to me—apart from the new facts I picked up, like the fact that scientists are still not quite sure they have a handle on how trees pull water and nutrients up hundreds of feet into the air from roots to canopy—was the way the tree itself became a character of this story. With trees, the authors explain, there is no definite moment of death. A tree’s life is in many ways a long dying. But reading the final acts of this particular tree’s life, I found myself—in a twist on much conservationist writing that witnesses to the loss of entire species or habitats—mourning an individual. Trees are monuments, they’re like rooted ships sailing not through space but through time. And we so often only see still images of their lives. To see the whole story spelled out from beginning to end was quite wonderful and surprisingly moving.

Trees still fascinate me. After reading this book I know them a little better. I also know (as with so much) that to truly understand them I’d need to devote a career to their study. But every little bit helps. Now maybe I love them a little better as well.