The Sixth Extinction

This article, The Sixth Extinction was written just over ten years ago and has since been expanded to a book, which is on my to-read list. In it, Elizabeth Kolbert uses the die-off of amphibians to illustrate how we’re causing a mass extinction by various means, from transporting animals/plants/insects and their associated viruses/bacteria to places not adapted to them, to reshaping the environment for our accommodation or food, to pollution and climate change.

Amphibians are among the planet’s great survivors. The ancestors of today’s frogs and toads crawled out of the water some four hundred million years ago, and by two hundred and fifty million years ago the earliest representatives of what became the modern amphibian clades—one includes frogs and toads, a second newts and salamanders—had evolved. This means that amphibians have been around not just longer than mammals, say, or birds; they have been around since before there were dinosaurs.


Griffith said that he expected between a third and a half of all Panama’s amphibians to be gone within the next five years. Some species, he said, will probably vanish without anyone’s realizing it: “Unfortunately, we are losing all these amphibians before we even know that they exist.”

Which brings to mind Niemöller’s quote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I wonder how far things will have to go before we as a species decide to seriously address the issue?

The Weathermakers

The Weathermakers, by Tim Flannery, looks at the problem of global warming and is a pretty timely read. Flannery breaks the issue down into a few key areas which he addresses in turn, starting with James Lovelock’s Gaia theory and how climate has changed in the past, what effects past changes have had on our planet and how the current CO2 levels compare to historic ones.

He then goes on to look at the effects global warming has already had on things like coral bleaching, species extinction, sea levels and frequency of severe storms before tackling the science behind climate modelling, the accuracy of our current models and what those models predict for the future. Along the way he shoots down some of the myths put forward by the anti-global warming crowd, eg: that since plants breathe CO2 an increase in CO2 will provide unprecedented agricultural yields. This is currently doing the rounds in the US at the moment, with the energy lobby taking out full-pafe newspaper advertisements to promote this theory. Flannery shoots it down by quoting research which shows that plants are actually less productive in an atmosphere with increased CO2!

Next up is a look in more detail at what will happen if things continue as they are, including a look at how plants and animals adapted to temperature changes before (by migrating) and how human infrastructure and agriculture is likely to hamper that process. He also talks about the effects of warmer oceans and their effect on food production as well as the effects on the ocean’s ciculatory systems.

The penultimate section deals with potential solutions to the problem, noting that we solved the ozone hole problem in a reasonably short time with a concerted international effort. He talks about Kyoto, both good and bad, and how it’s here to stay, the costs of fixing the problem versus those of doing nothing, the downside to plans to encourage the oceans to take up more CO2 by fertilising them with iron and finally, why a hydrogen economy will never work.

His final section is where he offers solutions that will work, focusing on the golden trio of hydro, wind & solar before introducing nuclear power, which seems to be making a comeback for two reasons: one, it emits very little greenhouse gases (about the same as hydro/wind/solar when you include lifetime costs) and two, more and more scientists think that global warming is a much greater problem than that of nuclear waste.

Flannery concludes by giving a few easy ways for the individual to start making a difference, including tips for reducing energy consumption and offsetting that which you can’t easily reduce. The book is well worth a read, and while it’s certainly alarmist in places, that’s probably what’s needed to get people to start taking the process seriously.

Parasite Rex

Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer, looks at the role parasites play in the game of life. Starting with the history of parasitology, and moving through the prevalence and treatment of different parasite-related diseases, Zimmer opened my eyes to how much of the world is dependent on parasites.

Along the way I learned lots of interesting stuff, such as the fact that chimpanzees self-medicate. I knew they use tools and hunt in packs, but never realised that not only do they eat unusual foods to help fight infections, but that they seem to be able to determine what it is that is causing a particular set of symptoms and eat the appropriate leaves or bark which contains the chemicals to fight off the parasites.

Zimmer also discusses issues such as introducing parasites to control pest species, using the example of the parasitic wasp which keeps the population of cassava mealybugs in check. When the bugs, natives of South America, made it to Africa, they devastated the cassava crop until the relevant wasp was introduced.

One of the most interesting ideas is that the presence of parasites is an entirely natural occurence throughout the spectrum of life, and can actually be a good thing, citing the example of Crohn’s disease which originally started as a disease exclusive to rich, New York Jews back in the 1930s. It turned out that rich New Yorkers had been amongst the first to be cleared of tapeworms as public health systems took effect, and that deliberately re-infecting sufferer’s of Crohn’s disease with tapeworms from animals (which therefore wouldn’t themselves cause a disease) cured them of Crohn’s in 80+% of cases.

This is definitely a book which will give you a whole different perspective on the world.

The Ancestor's Tale

I just finished Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale a few weeks ago and have to recommend it. Subtitled ‘A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life’, it examines the history of life, travelling backwards in time, from humankind’s position on the tip of one branch of the tree of life towards the trunk.

As we travel along our branch, other branches join up with us at places Dawkins calls rendezvouses. Since each branch represents another species, or collection of species on the tree of life, each rendezvous indicates the point at which our ancestors diverged from the ancestors of those species joining us, i.e. our last common ancestor, or ‘concestor’, with those species.

In a similar style to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as we meet each concestor, Dawkins tells a tale about our fellow travellers and it is these tales which make up the story. He also gives us an approximate date for each rendezvous based on today’s best knowledge, and makes an attempt to imagine what that concestor might look like, though as we get further back in time he freely admits that discussion of dates and appearance is mere guesswork.

Each tale illustrates a particular aspect of science relevant to the study of evolution, such as how species are classified and grouped within the tree of life, the various methods of dating fossils, how hox genes control the layout of body of body parts and much more. By the time we’ve met Concestor 40 Dawkins has given us a good appreciation of the current state of evolutionary biology, as well as an insight into the science behind things like DNA, mitochindria and all the little processes which go on inside our body to keep us alive.

It’s a long read, and while very interesting, it’s certainly not a page turner. If you’re at all interested in biology, evolution or just plain science, it’s well worth a read.

Book Fest

Just finished a big order to Amazon of a few books I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I’d better learn to speed read!

The Best American Science Writing 2004

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

History of the Arab Peoples

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004

The Devil’s Teeth : A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks

The Market for Aid

The Best Software Writing I

Should keep me going for a while.

The Triathlete's Training Bible

Joe Friel’s Triathlete’s Training Bible covers everything a triathlete needs to know about training. Now, I’m no triathlete, but I did want to find out how to go about training, information on V02Max, heart rate training bands and the like. This book covers all of that and much more. It sets out to give the reader all the information he/she will need to design their own annual training program, including macro- and micro-cycles. There’s nutrition information, technique information on running, swimming and cycling and so much more. In short, if you’re thinking of training yourself, or would just like to understand more about why your coach has you do certain things in training, this book is for you.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

I just finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything at the weekend and I enjoyed it immensely. In the words of a varnish commercial “it does exactly what it says on the tin”. Starting with the question of how the universe formed, and finishing with fossils of ancient man, this book is a meandering stroll through scientific history. The tale details both our knowledge of the journey so far as we know it, and the people who discovered that knowledge on our behalf. The whole thing is told in Bryson’s usual semi-irreverent style and while I knew a fair bit of the story already, his slant on it made it an enjoyable read, with never an equation in sight. Tom owns the copy I read, but it’s so good that I’m going to buy my own copy.

If This Is A Man

If This Is A Man is quite simply the best book I have ever read. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who was captured by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. This beautifully written book details his time spent in the camp, and the struggle for survival in the most degrading of circumstances. Despite the depravity of his ordeal, Levi is never bitter or consumed with hatred and he gives an objective description of the gradual erosion of what makes us human. The concentration camps of the Second World War were an extreme example of man’s inhumanity to man, and this book is one that should be read so that we do not forget what we are capable of.


An excellent book which is supposed to be about the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa. This was arguably the first ‘global village’ event as a global telegraphic network had only recently been completed, and the whole world got the news within a day or so. The book covers much more than just the eruption. There’s a history of the Dutch East India Company & Lloyds, whose officers reported on the disaster, sections on the science of plate tectonics which led to the volcano and lots more besides. The story ties together a number of different yet interrelated strands into a coherent whole and is well worth a read even for those who would not normally read a popular science title.