skulls & braaiiinz – what’s not to like? (also, plants)

 The intrepid reporters from Number 8 Network e-mailed the other day. "What are you reading?" they asked; "after all, it’s the holidays & you must have heaps of time to put your nose in a book." Which is sort of right, it is the Christmas/New Year break, but the days just seem to fly by when you’re doing not very much at all.

However, as it happens I’m working my way through several books at the moment, so I was able to oblige.

First up is Skulls, by Simon Winchester. Strictly speaking it’s not actually a book but an interactive iPad app, based on the enormous personal collection of Alan Dudley. I bought it because I find skulls fascinating (though not so obsessively fascinating as I think they must be for a collector of same) & the blurb at the app store offered me the ability to zoom in, out & around a whole bunch of bony brain protectors. This, I figured, would be quite fun & could also be a useful teaching tool (I’m looking forward to showing it to a colleague who teaches 3rd-year zoology). 

And the ability to examine skulls in such detail really is great, although – a minor quibble! – I would have liked to be able to look at them from beneath & above as well as from all sides. You lose some definition at high levels of zoom but apart from that, wow! I would otherwise not have known that the Atlantic wolffish has quite so many teeth (shades of an aquatic Red Riding Hood villain) & such a wonderfully architectural skull. Or that a rabbit could somehow have lived long enough for its incisors to grow backwards & inwards in curves reminiscent of reversed (& miniature) elephant tusks.

The chapters comprising the ‘book’ struck me as a bit of an eclectic mix: we’ve got an interview with the collector himself, followed by an essay on the nature of collecting. Then, after learning about what a skull actually is & the bones that make it up, we find out about the dodo, or the pseudoscience relating to skulls – wherein we can learn about Piltdown man & phrenology but not, to my surprise, the various claims about ‘alien skulls’ from South America. Or the iconography of skulls, or skulls in art & in Mexico, & so on. One of the nice things about apps like this is that – even less than with a ‘real’ book – you don’t have to follow a linear progression through the text but can dip in & out, & that there are nice little visual cues to guide you in your choice of where to go next. 

Not a lot in the text that was completely new to me, but well worth the price (at $17.99 this is one of the more expensive iPad apps) for the sheer enjoyment to be gained from viewing the images.

As for the brains – I’m also working my way through a Kindle edition of Carl Zimmer’s Brain CuttingsZimmer is one of my favourite science writers & this collection of essays (mostly written originally for Discover magazine) hasn’t disappointed me. The first essay’s title is from a question asked by Charles Darwin of one of his many correspondents. Wondering whether people around the world expressed emotions in the same way, Darwin asked, "Does shame excite a blush?" From this starting point, Zimmer takes us through scientists’ current understanding of the evolution of the face, a feature that began to form around half a billion years ago with the appearance of the earliest fishes. He asks why primates, in particular, have such complex, expressive faces – something that has to do with the complex social behaviour of this group of mammals. It turns out that facial mimicry is part of that social behaviour – and apparently the ability to mimic someone else’s facial expression, however briefly, may well be important in allowing us to understand how that person is feeling. An interesting experiment certainly suggests this:

[Researchers] had volunteers bite down on a pen and then look at a series of faces. They had to pick the emotion they thought the faces were expressing. The volunteers could recognise sad faces and angry ones with teh same accuracy as test subjects who did not have pens in their mouths. But they did a worse job of recognising happy faces.

Biting a pen, it just so happens, requires you to use the same muscles you use to smile. Because the smiling muscles were active throughout the experiment, [the research] subjects apparently couldn’t reel themselves start to mimic happy faces. Without that feedback, they had a more difficult time recognising when people were happy.

And that’s just the first chapter! The second essay, "The googled mind", is an exploration of just where the mind stops. As Zimmer remarks, 

[we] tend to think of the mind as separated from the world. We imagine information trickling into our senses and reaching our isolated minds, which then turn that information into a detailed picture of reality… In fact, teh mind appears to be adapted for reaching out from our heads and making the world, including our machines, an extension of itself.

In other words, it looks like the ‘mind’ is more of a complex system that comprises both the brain and various bits of its environment – books, for example, or computers, iPads – and even the tools we use. 

This book’s both entertaining & informative & I’m enjoying reading it, one chapter at a time.

Third on my list is an actual, print-on-paper, hardcopy book: Fifty plants that changed the course of history, by Bill Laws. I bought this on a colleague’s recommendation, because of all the topics I teach at first-year level, botany seems to be the one that students are least engaged with, & I was hoping for some nice new examples to add my list of ‘cool stuff about plants & how they changed our world’.

My impression of this book is that it’s a bit like the curate’s egg: good in parts. My copy is a beautifully presented hard-cover edition, with lovely illustrations & some fascinating snippets of information (for example, that pineapples were grown in England over pits full of fresh dung! (This generated heat as it rotted, & augmented the warmth from stoves.) And the idea of a bamboo bicycle is an intriguing one. I’m enjoying dipping into it, a couple of plants an evening.

But unfortunately that enjoyment is tempered by moments of irritation. OK, I know I’m simply being greedy in wanting to know more about some topics than can be fitted into the 2 or 3 pages accorded them here. That’s a minor one. But saying that plants "absorb carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen" glosses over the fact that plants need that oxygen for cellular respiration as much as we do. (All too many of my first-years share this particular misconception.) And what am I to make of the following statement ?

The oldest names for the coconut are in Sanskrit, pointing to India as the source [of this plant]. However, the discovery of the fossilised remains of a tiny proto-coconut on New Zealand’s North Island suggests it might have been first taken into service here 5,000 years ago.

Five thousand years ago, there weren’t any people in New Zealand; hence no-one to take anything ‘into service’… (Interestingly, Sir Charles Fleming notes that a fossil coconut dating to the middle-late Miocene was discovered in Hawkes Bay; this would give an age of around 5-10 million years.)

So, I’m accumulating some new stories to tell in class, and I am enjoying the read, but – unlike Skulls and Brain Cuttings – I probably won’t be recommending Laws’ book to students looking for a bit of extra reading. At least, not until I’ve finished it & identified any other potential pitfalls. Although… I guess the error I’ve picked up on here would be a useful jumping-off point for a discussion of New Zealand’s botanical history.

B.Laws (2010) Fifty plants that changed the course of history. Firefly Books. ISBN: 978-1-742372-18-1

S. Winchester (2011) Skulls. Touch Press.

C.Zimmer (2010) Brain Cuttings: fifteen journeys through the mind. Scott & Nix Inc. NY ISBN (Kindle): 978-1-935622-16-1

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