I really enjoyed this book. It is packed with interesting popular science tit-bits, presented in an engaging style, interwoven with the author’s personal experiences and the lives of various scientists.
Don’t expect to learn anything revolutionary or ground-breaking. This book, in parts, is a science primer. There was some material I already knew pretty well, and some parts, such as his explanation of the causes of earth’s seasons, and the discussion of tectonic plates, I have known since geography classes at age 13. It is a bit like Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything.
I really enjoyed the sections covering the Big Bang, how elements are formed inside stars, and what it’s like on Neptune and Mars. His discussion of the effect of gravity on mammalian body size is compelling, and includes the following observation, which is typical of the author’s entertaining style: ‘if you drop a mouse down a 1000m mine shaft, it gets up and walks away; a rat is killed; a human is broken; a horse splashes!”.
The story meanders from subject to subject. It is ostensibly about the impact of the cosmos and the laws of physics on our daily lives, but sometimes it wanders off at a tangent and you forget the core theme of the book. For this reason, and the fact that I was distracted by hedge-cutting while I listened, I took the unprecedented step of listening to the book twice. I picked up a lot of interesting stuff that I’d missed first time around.
The narrator is excellent and, as long as you are not looking for anything too cerebral, this is great popular science.
I have read, or listened to, a lot of very gloomy books over the last few years. Unfortunately, I think most of them have probably been telling the truth, so it is quite a relief to listen to a book that paints an optimistic picture of the future.
The authors don’t hide from the fact that we are facing an apparently unsustainable world population growth to 9 billion in the next couple of decades, along with an increasing demand for food and water and a continuing of humanity’s destruction of other species and the environment.
But in this book they do a pretty good job of convincing us that the situation is not as bad as we think, and that we have the ingenuity to solve many of these crushing, dispiriting problems: lack of food, lack of clean water, dependence on fossil fuels, pollution by human and industrial waste, deforestation, destruction of the oceans etc.
Their first job is to convince us that we are inherently pessimistic for a number of deep-rooted psychological reasons, because a pessimistic, suspicious, over-cautious outlook would have increased our survival chances when we were evolving as hunter-gatherers. A hunter-gatherer’s territory was small and involved only a few people and animals, and we aren’t wired to comprehend systems involving billions of people and countless other variables, so we tend to be over-pessimistic. For example, in 19th century London people believed that the city was being overwhelmed by horse-manure. They couldn’t conceive of a workable solution because they couldn’t imagine that a few years later the city would be dominated by automobiles and we would be worried about air pollution instead. Similarly, in later decades we thought acid rain would decimate the environment, but this problem has now been largely forgotten.
When we try to predict the future we tend to think of our rate of progress as being linear, but actually, many of our technologies advance at an exponential rate. An example of this is computer chip technology, where each year the number of circuits packed onto a chip increases exponentially. Problems that currently seem to be unsolvable, like the lack of clean drinking water in the world’s poorest countries, can be solved by the invention of water-purifying technologies. These devices are already being produced and are improving at an exponential rate. The knowledge and spread of such technologies is enhanced and compounded by the exponential growth of communication networks in the developing world resulting from the spread of mobile phone technology.
Similar technological solutions are offered for sanitation (toilets that don’t need water or an outlet pipe, that burn the faeces to generate energy, purify the urine to release fresh water and produce urea as a fertiliser). There are similar solutions offered for many other problems faced by the poor in the modern world. Solar panel technology which increases efficiency exponentially, improved battery technology made from abundant non-toxic chemicals, efficient high rise farms, bacteria that are genetically programmed to manufacture fuels and so on.
These may seem rather far-fetched, but today’s smartphones would have seemed far-fetched 20 years ago, and now they are affordable to almost everyone.
One might object that improving the lot of the poorest billion will only increase population further, so that it always remains unsustainable and beyond the reach of technological advances, but the authors point out that the rate of population growth always falls once people have the basic necessities to bring them out of poverty: Food, shelter, clean water, good sanitation, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, health and education.
It’s a fascinating book, and it offers an optimistic future without the need to radically change the whole global political landscape. I thought the only way to slow the current reckless onslaught towards environmental destruction would be to form some kind of world government which could control and limit emissions, deforestation, overfishing and all the other human activities that are doing so much damage, but this book suggests that we might arrive at a cleaner, better world without the need for drastic government intervention. This view may be overly optimistic, but I have enjoyed the hope.
This book didn’t quite live up to its billing, but was a very good listen nevertheless. I always struggle to know where to look for fiction, and I chose one this on the back of its being a best seller.
The character who narrates this book is death. He tells the story of a young girl orphaned by the political turmoil in Nazi Germany, who is then fostered by a Munich housepainter and his wife. They are simple, unsophisticated working class folk who swear at each other constantly, but underneath this rough exterior is a deep well of love and courage, the courage to risk their lives by sheltering a Jewish man in their basement.
So why is it called the book thief? The heroine, Lisa (forgive the spelling, I didn’t see the written name), begins by being illiterate and gradually develops into an avid reader. But books are scarce in this time of immense upheaval, poverty and strife. Not just scarce but also dangerous to own, and she rescues them from the burning bonfires of books lit by the Nazis in their rampant, frenzied campaign to enforce their ideology onto their people.
It’s a sad and moving story of a young girl trying to grow up in this bizarre and dangerous environment. Germany is locked into a war against the rest of the World, a war which they are starting to lose. All men, young and old, are susceptible to conscription to fight in Russia, the remaining civilians face the threat of increasingly frequent Allied bombing raids, and Jews are being transported to concentration camps. Against this background Lisa somehow enjoys some of the ordinary experiences of childhood and early adolescence, but you know all along that this small community, like the rest of Germany, is doomed and that there will be few survivors.
I understand that people who write books for a living have to keep generating ideas for new material. This must be very taxing, and I guess this is why there exists the concept of ‘writer’s block’. When Malcolm Gladwell sat down and starting scratching out this latest offering I think he was probably struggling a bit and scraping towards the bottom of the barrel.
He’s written some really good works that change the way his readers think about the world. In ‘the Tipping Point’ we learnt what factors combine to make something ‘go viral’, a la Gangnam Style. In ‘Blink’ we saw how adept humans are at making intuitive judgements in milliseconds with limited information, and in Outliers we realised that successful people are often winners because of arbitrary lucky factors rather than pure talent. In David and Goliath I’m not too sure what we learn, and if there is a core message in there, it’s a bit tenuous and foggy.
The basic idea of the book is that underdogs often prevail against the odds, and that this is the result of a number of factors such as: they break the rules; they aren’t afraid to do unpopular things; they are the products of difficult childhoods with ‘desirable difficulties’ such as dyslexia; their enemies underestimate them and misunderstand the use of power. These messages are intertwined with some quack pseudo-psychological theories, such as the notion that when the British Army were in Northern Ireland they didn’t realise they were on the ‘downside of the inverted u’.
There is some good stuff in this book. There are some insights that I could imagine being relevant to me in some future situation in my life, and the book was enjoyable because of the fascinating human interest stories that Gladwell tells so well, but there are too many generalisations and oversimplifications of complex issues which the author-narrator manipulates to fit his theory, whatever that may be.
I feel very shallow after listening to this book. I normally try to listen to material that will enlighten or educate me, but this was just plain entertainment; just a great story, well told! I loved every minute of it, from start to finish, and kept engineering ways to carry on listening.
It is about a wealthy man who commits suicide and leaves a note instructing the hero, a Mississippi lawyer, to leave 90% of his estate to a black housekeeper. The will is hotly contested, which makes for compelling courtroom drama. It’s just another story out of the Grisham mould, but every bit as good as any other I’ve read - and highly enjoyable.
I’ve listened to 130 Audible books so far, and this one was only my fourth biography/autobiography, the other 3 being Winston Churchill, David Attenborough and Tiger Woods. Those 3 people don’t have very much in common and my fourth choice, Johnny Carson, doesn’t help to establish a pattern.
I don’t know what made me choose this book. I have never seen the ‘Tonight’ show and am (or was) very unfamiliar with Johnny Carson’s work, but something tempted me and I bought the book, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Johnny’s story is told from the perspective of his lawyer. Henry Bushkin. When Bushkin met Carson he was a young man just starting out in his career, and he was flattered and astonished when Carson decided to put his faith in him and appoint Bushkin as his attorney. Bushkin is modest and doesn’t sing his own praises too loudly, but he must have been a brilliant lawyer because he sorted out Carson’s perilous financial position and dismissed all the parasites who had been exploiting Carson. Bushkin then became Carson’s Everything-Man, sorting out all Johnny’s personal and professional problems, which were manifold.
Why did Carson have so many problems for Bushkin to solve? Because, although he was charming, witty, handsome and a great talk-show host, he was an utterly selfish egomaniac. He was a hedonist who drank heavily, smoked four packets of cigarettes every day and had casual sex with countless women. He enjoyed being rich but didn’t like to put much effort into the lucrative business interests supplementing his income, such as posing for photographs advertising the range of clothing bearing his name. Johnny’s amoral lifestyle created lots of problems which Bushkin solved resourcefully and tactfully until he eventually grew tired of the role after 18 years, when they parted acrimoniously.
Was Johnny Carson all bad? Not quite. He would occasionally do an impulsive good deed and could be very generous, but instances of brutal nastiness are more the norm according to Bushkin’s account of their time together. This book is a fascinating insight into the relationship between 2 very interesting people.
For me this was a rare foray into fiction, and I was really happy with my choice. The book is about a young autistic boy who is socially maladjusted, but very gifted in mathematics and science.
The story is a whodunnit in which the hero, Christopher, describes his investigation into the murder of a neighbourhood dog. He uses his acute sense of logical deduction to unlock the truth, while being simultaneously hampered by his social ineptitude. The murder case leads to the discovery of some hidden truths about his own life history, resulting in a fascinating and moving development of the story.
Like most books, it is ordered into chapters, but Christopher is so fixated by mathematics that he uses prime rather than ordinal numbers for this purpose.
It’s a very funny story, and most of the humour results from Christopher’s stark factual interpretation of the world, revealing a refreshing truthfulness and lack of sentimentality. Despite his inability to form normal relationships and his emotional immaturity, you can’t help but bond and sympathise with him as the story builds to its climactic conclusion.
The narrator, Jeff Goodman, does a great job, but his English accent is 10% off the mark, so that he sounds a bit Australian at times. Not as bad as Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but distracting nevertheless.
Despite this somewhat churlish reservation, my overall verdict on the book is a definite thumbs up, and this will encourage me to listen to a bit more fiction in future.
I wasn’t worried about buying this book without knowing what it was about, because I trust Bill Bryson to be worth the risk, and he didn’t let me down.
At first it appears to be the story of Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic, but then it expands to also become the story of all the other interesting things that were going on in America that summer. Bryson rambles from story to story in no particular logical order, but all the characters he mentions are colourful and fascinating, such as Babe Ruth, Al Capone and Jack Dempsey.
Bryson’s style is very distinctive, full of superlatives and yet simultaneously laced with dry understatement. He is also the narrator of this audiobook, and he does a great job (although his French pronunciation isn’t great!).
He is such a brilliant storyteller that you wonder if 1927 was an exceptionally interesting year, or whether Bryson could write a similar book about any year and make it just as fascinating. I think the latter is probably true.
I knew when I downloaded this book that I was being a bit of a nerd, using up time that could have been spent listening to riveting fiction swotting up on chemistry, biology and physics. But I couldn’t resist it. Science is a big part of my job (I work in an intensive care unit) but I didn't opt for science at school, and although I know a fair amount about human biology I’m really aware of fundamental gaps in my knowledge concerning the basic sciences underpinning biology and science in general. This lecture series has definitely helped to fill those gaps.
He’s a pretty good lecturer, with a very good knack for explaining complex concepts using simple, helpful analogies. And the series is thoughtfully constructed so that it begins with the most fundamental concepts in science and then builds on this so that the listener acquires an overview of all human scientific endeavour by the end of the series.
Downsides? Well, it’s pretty old. These recordings were made in the 1990s, and whilst the basics of science haven’t changed significantly in those 20 years, you do keep wondering whether some of the modern scientific topics he mentions are still current (e.g. the large hadron collider and recent advances in medicine). He talks about global warming as if it’s just some controversial new theory that some scientists are working on, and the internet isn’t mentioned at all.
If you can tolerate the fact that it is dated and you want to learn more about the fundamentals of science, you should get this book. It is also great value, with 60 lectures for your one Audible credit.
This lecture series spans 24 hours of listening time, covering thousands of years of human history and prehistory. Although it is a lecture series, it isn’t at all stuffy or boring. In fact it is an enthralling, gripping and moving story of how our ancestors used to live their daily lives. The author focuses on what he calls the ‘other side’ of history, looking at the way ordinary people, rather than the ruling classes, lived their lives. He paints vivid pictures of the daily challenges facing early humans, Neanderthals, hunter-gatherers, the first farmers, the first citizens of Mesopotamia, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. He then moves to Britain to describe the Roman occupation, and the Anglo-Saxon period, finishing with the Norman invasion and the mediaeval era.
Themes that arise and recur many times across this immense span of history and prehistory include: the prevalence of slavery; the low social status of women and the hazardous nature of childbirth; the ever-present threat of violent death and appalling injury; short life expectancy; the constant discomfort caused by lice, worms, tooth decay, arthritis and gastroenteritis, and the smell of bad breath, body odour and faeces which would have filled the air in most of these societies most of the time. The immense power of religion was another force controlling the lives our ancestors to a depressing extent.
For each period of history the narrator focuses on a few different roles within the society in question. For example, in the Roman period you would learn what it was like to go into battle as a legionary, or to be a criminal facing the hideous ordeal of crucifixion, or an elderly man who can’t afford to retire and must work until he drops, living on the top floor of a rickety high rise Roman apartment block, with no sanitation and the constant risk of being burned alive in a fire.
I was never bored for a moment as the narrator transported me back through history and into the shoes, or sandals, of my ancestors. I wholeheartedly recommend this talking book.
If you want an unbiased history of the build-up to World War II, look elsewhere. This book is Winston Churchill's interpretation of the momentous events culminating in his coming to power in the early stages of the conflict.
But it is all the more interesting because it tells the story from his personal perspective. He is never shy of pointing out, time and time again, how his political colleagues could have avoided or delayed the war by standing up to Hitler. After the devastation of World War One the political climate in Britain was dominated by a desire for peace, and successive British governments stood back and watched while Hitler built a powerful military machine, a policy of appeasement which Churchill opposed vocally and consistently for many years. When Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland, the folly of the appeasers became undeniable and they stood down, making way for the one man who was ready for the fight.
Churchill's command of the English language is, of course, legendary. His radio speeches stirred and galvanized the British people and motivated them to make the necessary sacrifices in Britain's darkest hour. Although the subject of this story is a sombre one, it is a joy to hear it told in Churchill's own words.
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