Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes

A collection of essays on the art of biography, this book, by one of our best known and loved biographers, is divided into two parts, the first, confessions, dealing with the generalities of biography, the second, restorations, showcasing a series of vignettes of folk of the Romantic era, a period for which this author is best known. The latter section is particularly good, focusing often on how biographies change over time according to the social atmosphere of the period. Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Coleridge are especially interesting. I was less interested in Keats and Blake. A good read overall though, in polished prose and with plenty of insight.

The Tangled Tree by David Quammen

This is a really good book. I’m partial to histories of pre-Cambrian life on Earth, and this is one of the best I’ve read. The author is not only an experienced science writer, he has wit and wisdom, and a way with words too.

The book is split into seven sections, covering early, Darwinian notions of a tree of life, ideas about bacteria and other tiny organisms, ideas of biological symbiosis, a new, more accurate form of the tree, horizontal gene transfer, changing the lower section of the tree into a more accurate (but far more complex) network, and how what we know today affects human beings.

A few major characters stalk this marvellously written book, the main one being Carl Woese, responsible for the discovery of how different Archaea are from Bacteria. A difficult, complex man, except to those friends who liked him and stood by him, he is the heart of this book, though some of his ideas turned out to be wrong. But he did get a lot right. Another major character is Lynn Margulis, who put forward the accepted theory of mitochondria and chloroplasts being captured bacteria. Many other notables inhabit these pages, all sympathetically drawn.

The science is fascinating, the story is compelling and the details of personality and other quirks not intrusive. Too often (I’m looking at you, Adam Rutherford), writers over-do the human interest angle or, like Suzanne Simard, get it half right. Quammen’s notes on character are all perfectly judged and occur at just the right rate. These are really interesting people, and we do need to know a little about them. It’s a tribute to this author that he knows how to get that balance right.

You do need a bit of biological knowledge to get the full effect – the section on antibiotic resistance is pretty dense – but this is certainly a book for the lay reader. Highly recommended.

The Human Cosmos by Jo Marchant

Billed as a secret history of the stars, this book takes a journey through human history from Lascaux to extremophiles and planet hunting in a bid to illustrate how crucial the night sky has been (and should be now) for human beings.

Each of twelve chapters concentrates in chronological order on one aspect of stars, planets and the night sky, beginning with Palaeolithic people, heading through the agricultural revolution, fate and irrational faith, measuring time, science, art, biochronology and mind. Very well written, engaging and interesting this is a really good read which requires no scientific knowledge – just a fascination with the stars and our reaction to them.

A couple of niggles: the chapter on art is a bit wishy-washy, and the concluding chapter on mind perpetuates a few post-modern myths about “unusual” views, including the one about science not giving the whole picture. We know it doesn’t, because it’s an incomplete process. Meanwhile, consciousness is something we “have,” “in our brains,” rather than the experience itself. Minor criticisms however, in an increasingly complicated field.

All in all, highly recommended. The author ends with a plea for us to regain our sense of awe at the wonder of the night sky, a request for which respect is due.

Finding The Mother Tree

Finding The Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

Recent developments in forestry have radically changed our understanding of how forests work. Suzanne Simard has spent a lifetime working out the truth about what happens underground, and her book is a revelation.

Finding The Mother Tree opens with a description of her childhood, spent deep in Canadian natural surroundings, mostly forested. It soon becomes clear that she is attuned to nature in a way most people aren’t, partly through sensitivity and partly through her family’s circumstances in British Columbia. As her life reaches adulthood however, it’s obvious to all that forestry is her passion and her academic future.

Simard’s discoveries seem trivial to some, and through her life she’s had many detractors. In a nutshell, she has proved that a vast network of fungi acting through mycorrhizal filaments works to allow all sorts of trees to pass water, nutrients and other substances to one another. In showing this (via an exhaustive set of fiddly experiments), she’s overturned the traditional view of forests operating via competition. In fact, they act through cooperation.

As the book reaches its conclusion it’s very clear that traditional means male, competitive and destructive, while her view emphasises cooperation. Simard is a trailblazer for women working in male institutions, and it’s a tribute to her that she’s done so much against such stubborn, ignorant opposition. What really stands out is how male foresters simply apply their boys’ view of the world to forests, assuming that competition for resources is the key to their commercial operations. When Simard proves them totally wrong they don’t like it, and do what they can to stop her. It’s only recently with the new generation of foresters that glimmers of comprehension are beginning to filter through.

Through the compelling story of how she makes her scientific case, Simard weaves the tale of her own life. I usually don’t much care for this type of approach, but in the first half of the book it is vital, relevant background. I have to say though that the second half could do without the personal stuff, which becomes increasingly off-putting.

This is a fascinating, important, timely book. Highly recommended to all those who value nature as it really is, not how men in particular have characterised it.

South by Merlin Coverley

I picked this up in a Waterstones sale on the strength of the blurb. It’s quite a quirky book, essentially a survey of attitudes to the concept of south. Part history, part cultural survey, it has four main sections: European south, the south Pacific, ‘magical’ souths (including Jorge Luis Borges), and Antarctica.

Illuminating and well written, if a little dense in places, this is a good read for sure, with the second part particularly good. The comparison with northern attitudes is well done.

Not for everyone then, but certainly worth a read if you spot it anywhere.

Metazoa by Peter Godfrey-Smith

This terrific book is nothing less than a history of the likely evolution of the animal mind, starting from nothing, or, at least, from a past so distant there are almost no fossils. Published last year, it has already won many plaudits.

It begins with the simplest known multicellular animal types, focussing on glass sponges. In this and subsequent fascinating chapters, the author develops a theory of the animal mind using sensing and movement as his core processes. The chapters then go on to self-sensing, the crucial importance of knowing whether a stimulus comes from self or from the world outside, and then a look at how ever more sophisticated mental models evolved – and why.

Brilliantly written, compelling and fascinating, this is an excellent book. The author also has a go at analysing the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness, qualia. He is a materialist monist, so in my view he comes to a highly plausible declaration, which is that the mind is not something created by the brain, it is the brain, that is, when the brain is doing all its usual things. The mind in other words is not a thing or a consequence, it is a process. This leads to an excellent demolition of the usual SF AI tropes of mind-uploading, etc, which I had a go at in my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox (reviewers had differing opinions of the results).

This book comes highly recommended from me for non-specialist and specialists readers alike. The author’s first book on octopi, Other Minds, has been acknowledged a classic. I’ll be seeking out a copy soon.

The Long, Long Life Of Trees

The Long, Long Life Of Trees by Fiona Stafford.

This is a lovely, highly readable, interesting book which acts as both a survey of folk customs and beliefs, but also as the author’s paeon to trees. Split into a series of short chapters each focusing on one species, it is charming, well written and a really good read. I enjoyed it a lot.

Women & Power by Mary Beard

Women & Power, a manifesto, updated.

Based on two lectures given a few years ago, this short book uses classical history to discuss the way women are kept from power, and from the wider public world. As a fan of this excellent author, thinker and tv presenter, I was keen to read Beard’s thoughts on the subject. Those thoughts are succinct, accurate and very relevant. Every man should read it, as one of the blurb quotes remarks. I was particularly taken by Beard’s conclusion that, for all that MeToo is a great thing, what we really need is a change in power structures. Merely acquiring more women MPs isn’t enough, especially if, as she observes, power has moved to some other venue. Readable, relevant, important, timely – this book is all these things.

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

In Merlin Sheldrake’s wonderful and very readable account of the world of fungi, the reader encounters a kingdom of organisms neither plant nor animal (in fact they are slightly more closely related to animals, though the last common ancestor is unimaginably ancient). Entangled Life is a survey of what we know about fungi at the moment; and that, it transpires, is not a lot.

Fungi have been comparatively overlooked until recently. As Sheldrake wryly observes, universities have departments for animal life and plant life, but not fungal life – a kingdom arguably more important than either, at least when it comes to the fantastically complex systems they initiate, control and inhabit. Plants in particular cannot survive without fungi, more than ninety percent of them relying on mycorrhizal networks for basic minerals and other nutrients found in soil. These nutrients fungi provide, in return for sugars created by photosynthesis. It is a commonplace symbiosis.

The books deals with a number of aspects of fungi, all compelling and fascinating. In particular the chapters covering how fungi utilise the food they live in (Sheldrake defines them thus) are marvellous – a true scientist at work, and a man of letters also. Equally interesting are the chapters covering our relationship with fungi – yeasts for instance – and the metaphors we use to describe them. There simply isn’t a dull paragraph in this book. Some personal details are included, but never to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Highly recommended to all interested in the natural world of our incredible planet.

Our Future Earth by Curt Stager

This book is a look at the future of the world over the next hundred thousand years or so, a concept guaranteed to interest me. Well written, full of insight, and scrupulously fair and accurate when it comes to how science is done, it’s a delight to read from beginning to end. The chapters cover ice, the tropics, rain and snow, and much on planetary orbit and how that affects climate. There’s a chapter on the last 34 million years of the ice age world, and one on the 55 million year old PETM (thermal maximum) including its considerable and worrying relevance to what we’re doing to the planet at the moment. Highly recommended to all those who care about the world now and who are interested in the deep future.