Recent History, Science & Music Non-Fiction Reads: Five Points, When Brains Dream & Year of Wonder

I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum [2002] by Tyler Anbinder ★★★★

I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlanskys The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006]. In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.

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Review: The Bilingual Brain by Albert Costa

The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us About the Science of Language [2017/2021] – ★★★1/2

Albert Costa was a Research Professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, and in this short book, which was translated from the Spanish by John W. Schwieter, he explores bilingualism, the mysteries surrounding a human brain that is used “to juggle” two languages daily. “How do two languages coexist in the same brain?…What are the implications of this coexistence? and “is there anything special about being bilingual?” [2017/2021: ix], asks Professor Costa. Referring to many studies and evidence from neuro-imaging techniques, the author meditates on such topics as (i) how bilingual babies acquire languages, (ii) why some people with brain injuries lose their language abilities, (iii) what effect a second language may have on a dominant one, and (iv) how the choice of a language affects human judgement. Instead of providing convincing or concrete arguments, the book rather emphasises the awesomeness of bilinguals and the fact that many questions are still open to debate in this field. However, where Professor Costa’s essay lacks in rigour and depth, it certainly makes up in piquing curiosity and stimulating conversation.

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Review: A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters) by Giles Sparrow

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars [2020] – ★★★1/2

In this new non-fiction book, the author explains key scientific discoveries through stars: from Polaris and the calculation of sky angles/directions and the discovery of Mizar’s double nature and what it ultimately said about star systems, to the mysteries of sunspots and the discovery of the existence of black holes through the exploration of Cygnus X-1. Although A History of the Universe does engage in a lot of confused “cherry-picking” of scientific facts and discoveries, and the language does get quite annoying, the book can still be described as a pure “starry” wonder and a good read for all those interested in stars and key scientific discoveries related to them.

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Thoughts on Non-Fiction

Since November is designated for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, I thought I would talk about my favourite non-fiction genres and my experience of reading non-fiction books. The only non-fiction genre which I love but will not cover below is medicine/cognitive science. It will be the topic of my next post and I also previously covered it in this list here.

This new book on my TBR list traces the history of human movement on water

Some of my favourite non-fiction books fall into the categories of history and travel (culture exploration). Be it dinosaurs (The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs), the Middle Ages (A Distant Mirror) or stories of survival in hostile terrains (Miracle in the Andes), I find all these topics completely fascinating. My previous favourite reads also included books on Mexico, New Orleans, New York and Rome. Though some I enjoyed more than others (for example, I did not get along with Peter Mayne’s Marrakesh book nor with Kurlansky’s Havana), I am always keeping my eyes open for interesting books in these categories. Thus, I am currently looking forward to reading A History of the Bible by John Barton, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia, and Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, an author that was recommended to me by Ola G.

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Review: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

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A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie [2015] – ★★★★★

15 September 2020 marks 130 years since the birth of Agatha Christie in 1890, and this review is meant to pay tribute to the ultimate Queen of Crime. The author of A is for Arsenic is Kathryn Harkup, a chemist by profession, who decided to plunge into all the poisons that Christie used in her books to come up with her perfect crimes. In A is for Arsenic, we first read about the scientific properties of each of the poisons used by Christie in her fiction, from arsenic and belladonna to opium and phosphorus (including their histories and the ways they kill), before the author illuminates the real cases involving these poisons, and finally talks about the fictitious cases in Agatha Christie’s books. It is clear that reading about different poisons has never been as morbidly fun or interesting as with this book since Harkup is an intelligent and succinct writer with a great sense of humour. A is for Arsenic is sure to fascinate and delight this Halloween season.

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Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner

Quantum Enigma Book Cover Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness [2011] – ★★★★ 

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7: 7- 8, The King James Version of the Bible).

The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine” (Sir James Jeans).

Did you know that it has been experimentally proven in physics that the way you decide to look at something (your observation) changes that something or dictates/creates its locality/position? This happens on the atomic level and no one disputes that finding in the scientific community because this has been proved through the so-called “double-slit” experiment. However, virtually no one in the scientific community wants to consider what this finding means beyond its practical application. Quantum Enigma is a book that explores the divide that has emerged in science between Einstein’s theory of relativity, governing big objects in the universe and, the quantum theory that governs objects on the atomic level. The book provides a good historical overview of the knowledge so far on quantum mechanics, delving into the famous “double-slit” experiment and the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox. In this sense, it is a great book for those completely unacquainted with the topic because it explains concepts in a very clear and unhurried way. The downside of this, of course, is that the book is needlessly repetitive and provides very few, if any, fresh ideas beyond the already established knowledge.  Continue reading “Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner”

Review: If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

Book Cover If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life [2015] – ★★★★1/2  

I am continuing with my Non-Fiction November Reading Challenge with this curious book on the Fermi paradox. This paradox states that, if there are billions of stars out there in galaxies, and they are similar to and much older than our Sun, there is a high probability that those distant systems have planets that resemble our planet Earth. In turn, the typical nature of our planet means life must have developed and accelerated on other planets too, and, if beings there developed interstellar travel, they should have visited Earth already (or at least sent their probes). The paradox is that we do not see/perceive any extraterrestrial activity. Dr Stephen Webb is a theoretical physicist who proposes and discusses seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox in this book, solutions which he divides into three sections: (i) Alien Are (or Were) Here; (ii) Aliens Exist, but We Have Yet to See or Hear from Them; and (iii) Aliens Do Not Exist. This is an enjoyable, mentally-stimulating book that impresses with the number and diversity of different solutions and theories that may explain the Fermi Paradox. Continue reading “Review: If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb”