Book reviews

Julia Riley has the honour of being the first lab member to post a book review. And she chose a book by a big-hitter: E.O. Wilson.

Letters to a Young Scientist

E.O Wilson, 244 pp. Liveright Publishing/W. W. Norton & Company. Paperback on Amazon: US$8-12.

Review by Julia Riley, 6 July 2014

This intimate, personal read, is both inspiring and informative about the scientific academic world. E.O. Wilson wrote this book in a casual, personable manner, and it reads like a mentor advising one about their future career choices by telling them his own stories and life lessons. This book is divided up into 5 main sections: the path to follow, the creative process, a life in science, theory and the big picture, as well as truth and ethics. The chapters within these five sections are short, and a quick, easy read, whenever one has a break. They span topics such as: the importance (and conversely, the lack of importance) of mathematical understanding in biological sciences, goals and attitudes to strive toward as a graduate student, and why science is crucial for humanity to progress. I personally found it an extremely enjoyable read with a substantial portion of insight, and inspiration to strive towards greatness in my future career. This book contains wise advice from a great sage in the biological sciences, and is most definitely a worthwhile read.

Brilliant Blunders

Here is the second in our series of book reviews by members of the Lizard Lab.

Review by James Baxter-Gilbert

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. Mario Livio. 2013. Simon and Schuster. 352 pp. ISBN 1439192383, 9781439192382.

Trial and error is a fundamental form of problem solving, and as such a great deal of humanity’s knowledge has been derived using such methods. As you can likely gather from the name, a key component of this heuristic method of learning involves the act of making mistakes. Mistakes that allow us to evaluate what happen and alter our actions to try again. Making blunders is a part of normal life for your average day to day person. To err is human. However there is a certain short list of great thinkers whose brilliant successes elevated our perception of them to be often infallible. Why, even the name Einstein is now synonymous with intelligence. That being said these people, were just that, people. When pricked they did bleed. And while pondering (often topics at the time imponderable) they did make mistakes.

Mario Livio’s book ‘Brilliant Blunders’ is a relentlessly researched examination of five of the world best thinkers and some of their greatest mistakes Not to be confused with a collection of zany science anecdotes; such as when Copernicus lost his keys or Sir Isaac Newton accidentally put salt in his coffee. No, this well thought out story examines Charles Darwin, Lord Kevin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein’s greatest successes followed by a spectacular blunder. From an Nobel prize winner in Chemistry hastily proposing a theory which ignored basic rules of bonding (as would have been taught in Chem 101), to a framed astrophysicist giving name to the “Big Bang” while passionately attempting to disprove it, it seems we ALL make some silly mistakes. However in making these blunders these five great minds may have paved the way for more discoveries to be made (often by the masses of people trying to disprove them). It seems there may still be a silver lining to a science rock star getting the proverbial egg all over his face.

This is the type of book you need to read twice. Once to get the gist, and once again to take notes. It is a great read and the wonderful tour into some the most brilliant blunders of modern science.

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

A Riley & Whiting Collaboration

Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. 128 pp. Cloth ISBN 9781442645561 Published Mar 2016, ebook (EPUB format) ISBN 9781442663107 Published Apr 2016.

Julia Riley’s Review:

First, I would like to say as an expat Canadian researcher, I am happy to say that two Canadian professors wrote this book! Woot!

This book proposes a means to tackle the effect corporatization of higher education has on universities. Their ‘Slow’ Professor Manifesto has three aims: “to alleviate work stress, preserve humanistic education, and resist the corporate university”. The book focuses on how individual academics can change their own behaviour to allow personal relief from career stressors, and also promote systemic change. As a current PhD student, although they did attempt to gear the book for postgrads, the content was still a little out of my grasp. I do wonder what current professors thoughts on this book would be, or what my thoughts will be once I am in an academic leadership role. That being said there were some clear steps in the book where I, as a postgrad, could take action to improve my own current academic experience. For example, stopping comparing myself to other researchers as it only has a negative effect on my personal productivity, self-esteem, and confidence to approach other researchers for collaborations. Also, during conferences, departmental seminars and meetings, try to avoid multi-tasking and stay off of my phone or laptop. This would allow me to be more present in these scenarios, and likely will help me be an active member of the academic community.

I also found the writing style a bit odd, and not what I am used to as a scientist. But, I quickly got used to it. I sped through this book; it is appropriately short and concise. I feel like even the busiest academic could easily pick up and digest this book quickly. I personally finished reading it during two return train rides from work to home!

Overall, their ‘Slow’ Professor Manifesto really spoke to me. The issues they presented are ones I have noticed in today’s current academic systems. Many of the actions they suggested are things I hope to be able to do as an academic myself. Furthermore, the picture they paint of an academic system that takes time to promote undergraduate involvement in learning, and a vibrant and diverse academic community is one I hope to be part of once I am a professor myself!

Martin Whiting’s Review:

I will be very brief because Julia has done a wonderful job capturing the essence of this book and explaining the authors’ main thesis.

I’ll start by saying that most biologists that become academics do so because of a curiosity that is aroused early in life. I have been privileged to conduct field work in far-flung and exotic places working with fascinating creatures—it’s highly rewarding to answer interesting questions about the animals we work on. At the same time, I’m frequently overwhelmed by the amount of paper work that continuously crosses my desk. As such, I was very curious about what advice the authors of “The slow professor” had to offer! I wasn’t overly surprised by what I read, but there were some gems, and it prompted me to think about and reassess my own approach to the business of academia, in a culture of high expectation and little time.

We are expected to get grants, do research, publish papers, graduate postgrad students, sit on committees, teach undergraduates and fill out hundreds of forms in order to be compliant. Most of these things are intellectually rewarding and satisfying (except filling out forms) but they are being undermined by corporatization. We have to multi-task like never before. The authors stress the need to focus more on the process and less about the numbers (e.g. of papers). It’s also okay to miss an admin deadline (I loved reading that!). In fact, it can be good thing because it means you are focusing on the important stuff. Academia can be a treadmill and it’s easy to get fixated on unimportant e-mails and working on your to-do list. The authors stress life balance and a way of research that focuses more on the process and the quality of work. It might result in fewer outputs but chances are that the outputs themselves will have higher impact and make for more satisfying science (in our discipline). In this way we push back against a system of corporatization in favour of our craft and personal well-being! Well, that’s the plan..