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Weekly Reviews: Weird Science
Following Stiff, Spook, Bonk and Packing for Mars, Mary Roach is back with Gulp, in which she maintains her punning, entertaining writing style, as well as her willingness to go to the gross-out extreme. There were actually moments in this book that made me nauseous, and there is one chapter in particular that I believe limits it to older teens, but no one can deny the appeal of Roach’s books with young adult readers AND the excellence of her research. She’s also a darling with the media, regularly getting coverage with outlets such as Huffington Post, Slate, and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
In Weird Life, David Toomey pushes the boundaries of what scientists consider to be life, beyond extreme life to what he calls weird life. In a New York Times Arts Beat interview, Toomey states that if we consider that all familiar life comes from a single ancestor, weird life comes from another altogether. He’s looking not only on Earth but in space as well. I’m sure we all heard teens sharing their excitement at last Thursday’s news about the discovery of two planets capable of sustaining life. These are the teens who will particularly enjoy this book. Toomey is an English professor at Amherst, and also a science writer. He pulls together multiple scientific fields here; he even includes a chapter on science fiction.
With Contagious, Jonah Berger, assistant professor at Wharton, engages the territory staked out by the ever-popular Malcolm Gladwell, but stays closer to business marketing than sociology or psychology. Why do certain ideas, videos, products go viral? His book website, Virality Explained, illustrates the six principles of his theory.
ROACH, Mary. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. 336p. bibliog. Norton. Apr. 2013. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780393081572.
Young Adult/High School–Roach is back with her fifth funny, irreverent, and wonderfully informative book of scientific investigative journalism. Here she explores the digestive tract from top to bottom. Readers learn about human taste testers who help create new pet foods, whether a man can survive in a whale’s stomach, the phenomenon of extreme chewing, the science of eating contests, and the reason crispy foods are so appealing. With her trademark glee, Roach addresses several taboo subjects, such as drug mules, just how imprisoned convicts smuggle contraband, and the flammability of flatulence. She relishes the opportunity to go to the most gross-out extremes in her research. Just as fascinating as the scientific facts she uncovers are the people she meets. Many of the scientists Roach introduces, either still alive or from the past, are incredible characters. As she says, “I think it’s fair to say that some degree of obsession is a requisite for good science, and certainly for scientific breakthrough.” Roach’s conversational writing style, especially the incorporation of clever, punning one-liners, particularly within the footnotes, is tailor-made for teens. They might not even notice how much they are learning about research, as the author mentions reading historic documents, interviewing the experts, and witnessing and even taking part in the occasional experiment. While they might not want to read Gulp during lunch, readers will happily follow Roach down the digestive path.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
Adult/High School–How is life defined? Is it by creatures that breathe oxygen and drink water, as we define life on Earth? Or is it possible that life can survive on ammonia, or silicon, or some other element? And when does a robot or some other artificial intelligence become life? Might we someday be dominated by our machines? And given the vastness of the universe, how likely is it that life elsewhere is looking for us in the same way we are looking for it? These are but a few of the questions brought up in Toomey’s mind-expanding book. In nine independent but interrelated chapters, the author first shares the “weirdest” life we’ve found, extremophiles, which live on Earth in either hotter or colder temperatures than life was originally believed to be sustainable. However, just because we haven’t discovered life on other planets yet doesn’t mean it’s not there–as one scientist puts it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The book ends with a mindblowing chapter about life in the multiverse. Who is to say that our universe is the only one? Maybe there’s another universe on the other side of us, and another one and another one, to infinity and beyond. These kinds of scientific and philosophical conundrums are what give this book appeal beyond the standard science book.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
Adult/High School–Livestrong yellow wristbands, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, and Vietnamese manicurists all have something in common. They went viral, rapidly escalating in popularity until virtually everyone has experienced or at least become aware of their existence. Taking a style cue from other popularly accessible authors such as Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell, Berger presents his hypothesis for why certain things catch on. His STEPPS theory asserts that the six principles–social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories–must work in some combination to ensure that an idea or product goes viral. Deconstructing numerous examples to illustrate his points, the author walks readers through each element in a conversational style, distilling his main ideas in pithy statements. (To illustrate the importance of emotion, remember “When we care, we share.”) Berger’s audience is marketing professionals or those with a product to promote, and he presents his points through that lens. Still, anyone interested in social theories will find his studies intriguing and be tempted to apply their conclusions to more recent viral occurrences. While teens might not be familiar with all the examples, somewhat undermining how successful the technique is, they will easily understand the thought behind them. Marketing students are a perfect fit for this exploration, and marketing teachers would do well to include Berger’s theory and writing in their curriculum. Just as Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics (Morrow, 2005) found a broader teen audience, so may Contagious.–Priscille Dando, Pairfax County Public Schools, VA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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