Friday, September 30, 2005

Books (Science): Shadows

Before I started Endless Forms Most Beautiful, I had read most of the way through Shadows: Unlocking Their Secrets, From Plato to Our Time by Roberto Casati. Unfortunately, one morning before work I couldn't find my copy and, unwilling to go into the office without a book, I started on Endless Forms instead.

Shadows is a recent book in the recently popular sub-genre of books that focus exclusively on the history of one (or a handful) of pieces of science or technology. The first one I encountered was Dana Sobel's Longitude, which was fun, and there've been several since then. (Jon Stewart poked fun at a book of this sort about rubber vulcanization while joking about how boring C-SPAN is.)

I finally found my copy of Shadows yesterday, and finished it off during my lunch hour. It's another fun book that covers how we percieve and understand shadows, both developmentally (how we, as individuals, figure shadows out as we're growing up as children) and historically.

Naturally, he starts with Plato and the cave, and in fact he uses dialogues bewteen Plato and his shadow to introduce the various sections. These dialogues help tie the book together, which is useful because it is a little fragmented. The first section deals with shadows and human psychology -- how children learn to understand what shadows are and the rules concerning their behaviour, etc. The next two sections are about geometry and astronomy (including Erastothenes's measurement of the circumference of the Earth, Galileo's discovery of mountains on the Moon, using the Galilean satelites to measure the speed of light, and so on). After that comes a section of the relationship bewteen shadow projections and perspective projections (and, of course, their relation with Renaissance art).

While there are a lot of good stories and history in the book, it does miss out on a couple of opportunities to bring the shadow stories right up to modern times (only a couple of sections in the book deal with anything much later than the Enlightenment). The field of computer graphics, for example, has made an extensive study of the properties of shadows, far more detailed (I suspect) than anything that has gone before, but Casati doesn't mention it at all.

Shadows has got me thinking about shadows more when doing photography. Not that I've managed to do anything interesting with photographing shadows yet, but I'm keeping my eyes open. Read more!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

TV (Drama): CSI

I'm not going to cover TV much on this site because I don't actually watch that much TV (DVDs are another matter), but since I'm just starting this up, I figured I'd toss this out.

About the only non-cartoon TV I watch is the three CSI shows. The first is still my favourite, and I really enjoy the character of Gil Grissom -- a good unapologetically eccentric (yet competent) scientist character. But one thing about the show really bugs me -- the "enhancement" bits.

It doesn't happen every show, but there will often be a scene in which the team takes a photo, or video tape, or webcam still, and "enhances" it to reveal a vital clue. And almost invariably, they manage to do something like take extract a license plate number from a single pixel. In tonight's episode, they took casino security video and retrieve a name and phone number from a mailing list form on a shop counter. The whole form could not have been more than half-a-dozen scan lines high.

While there's a lot you can get out of hidden information in a photo if you know what you're doing, it's simply not possible to get details of letters 5mm high out of a security scan that covers a six metre viewing area. The information isn't just hidden -- it isn't there to be extracted. The whole thing is just a lazy way of getting necessary clues in front of the team so they can grab the next suspect.

Maybe sometime I'll do my rant about the mess they made of Japanese military history a couple of seasons ago, too... Read more!

Books (Comic Strip): My Hot Dog Went Out, Can I Have Another?

The latest comic strip collections that I collect are showing up in stores now. When I picked up Corpse, I got caught up on those as well. I don't just read science books!

I often read comic strip books in bed before going to sleep, especially when I'm reading heavier material (like biology or forensics) during the day, just to relax. The problem is that I have a limited number of comic book collections, so I end up re-reading them a lot. So the more new ones I have, the better.

The first one that I picked up today is My Hot Dog Went Out, Can I Have Another?, the 18th FoxTrot collection. There's not a lot to say about it -- it's fun, but nothing new. The Spider-Man 2 storyline was a little thin as FoxTrot movie geek stories go, though the family vacation story was refreshingly light on "Dad's an idiot" gags. A nice addition to the pile.

The other comic strip book is the latest Sherman's Lagoon collection. That's for tomorrow night. Read more!

Books (Science): Corpse

The book I ended up buying after I decided to try this weblog is Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death by Jessica Snyder Sachs. Being a CSI fan contributes to a morbid interest in forensics. I've already read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, and I hope that this new book will be as fun and interesting. We'll see. Read more!

Books (Science): Endless Forms Most Beautiful

The book I was finishing when I was inspire (if that's the word) to try writing about reading was Sean B. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, an introduction to evolutionary developmental biology, or "Evo Devo". Evo Devo is the study of how the development of an individual organism, based on its genetic code, can teach us about the interrelationships between different species and how form can change over generations.

I picked up the book largely because of the review at PK Myers' Pharyngula. Myers' review is a little odd -- he opens it talking about how disappointed he was in the book, but quickly turns positive:

So I read the whole thing with a bit of exasperation, waiting for him to get to the good stuff, and he never did. But then after thinking about it for a while, I realized what the real problem was: he didn't write book for me, the inconsiderate bastard, he wrote it for all those people who maybe haven't taken a single course or read any other books in the subject of developmental biology. I skimmed through it again without my prior biases, and realized that it's actually a darned good survey of basic concepts, and that I'm going to find it very useful

Since I've never taking a course in developmental biology, it sounded like a good fit to me.

This isn't supposed to be a book review site, just a talk-about-the-book-I-read site, so I'm not going to critique it in any detail. It is a good survey of basic concepts, and I enjoyed Carroll's writing a lot.

My main gripe is that Carroll's not quite as novice-ready as Myers suggested. He sometimes assumes more knowledge of biology than a bio-newbie might have. For example, he explains what DNA bases are, and what transcription and translation are, but he doesn't explain how it works -- a review of how the genetic code maps bases onto amino acids to make protiens would have been nice. So far as I remember, the names of the bases only appear in the caption to a diagram.

That's not a big problem -- you don't need to know the details of transcription and translation to follow the rest of the book. A bigger issue comes in the discussions of how genetic switches regulate how (for example) a developing insect embryo becomes divided into segments, some of which eventually develop legs / wings / etc based on their position on the embryo. Carroll explains how (roughly speaking) combinations of switches tell a cell "If you're located 15 degrees forward on the embryo, turn on the leg-developing genes", but I never got a clear notion of just how each cell (in which the genetic switches are being activated or repressed) knows that it is 15 degrees forward on the embryo.

Fortunately, I had read Armand Leroi's Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body a few months back. Mutants tells how the abnormal development -- such as polydactyly, having extra fingers or toes -- can teach us about the genetics underlying human development. This is essentially the same material as in Endless Forms' second chapter, Monsters, Mutants, and Master Genes, but with different emphasis. Mutants doesn't cover a wide variety of examples of genetic switches, but it does a better job at explaining the embryonic geography question that I felt was glossed over in Endless Forms.

Likewise, one of my favourite science books is Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide to Genetics, which fills in a lot of the missing information on DNA mechanics -- including a far more detailed explanation of how a lac repressor actually represses. The chapters on DNA in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach are also worth reading as an introduction to the subject.

Anyway, I said this wasn't supposed to be a real review, so that's enough for now. Endless Forms is definitely a good introduction to Evo Devo. A little background in how DNA works makes it better. Read more!

The Book I Read

I was wandering through Indigo, trying to figure out what to read once I finished what I was reading, and thought to myself, "I have a Blogger account, but I only use it when posting comments... Why not use it to write about what I'm reading? Maybe I can get people to suggest more things to read, rather than have to browse through rows and rows of books."

So I started this up. I don't know how long it'll last, or how busy it'll be. I do read a fair bit, but I've never broadcast my reading habits to the world before. I'm pretty curious as to how it'll work.

Note: I'm using the Canadian book chain Chapters / Indigo as my source for book links. I'm not a member of their affiliate program, though, as I'm not really interested in flogging their promotions or running ads for them. I picked them because they are where I buy many of my books. Read more!