Book Review: Your Inner Fish

This book is not what I expected, but quite pleasurable to read nonetheless. Your Inner Fish does not detail the ichthyologic nature of the human body. Rather, it explores how fish moved onto land, where many now-ubiquitous adaptations came from, and how scientists figured it out.

Dr. Shubin begins with the story we all came to hear: how his team of paleontologists discovered Tiktaalik Roseae. This ancient, shallow-water fish  Tiktaalik is an important transitional fossil because it was one of the first discovered with rudimentary hands. Biologists comparing the limbs of species noticed pattern in the limbs of land animals as far back as the mid-1800s. This patter held only for land-adapted species—reptiles, amphibians, mammals (including aquatic mammals that returned to the seas).

For a long time, it was believed that fish don’t exhibit this pattern. Then lungfish were discovered: living fossils which exemplify, in some ways, the transition from ocean to land. As their name implies, they possess basic lungs, and, interestingly, the beginnings of limbs.

Tiktaalik was an improvement on the lungfish. It had a flat head, for swimming in shallow water, and fin bones that show the beginning of a wrist. Together, we see why fins evolved into arms: shallow water fish needed to do pushups. In their fish-eat-fish world, the ability to push oneself through extra-shallow patches was likely a critical advantage.

Let me tell you, exercising seems a lot less mundane when you consider that your lungfish ancestors did it to survive. That’s what your arms evolved to do. It’s only more recently we found further applications for them.

Throughout this book, Shubin is trying to explain how scientists managed to figure out our evolutionary history. He has perhaps a unique perspective to explain this process, as a paleontologist turned anatomy professor. Knowing what came before helps explain the ways in which earlier species were contorted to become the ones we see today.

Comparative anatomy and the fossil record tell us a lot about how modern species came to be. But genetics also offers considerable insight. Looking at the differences between genomes can tell us a lot about how recently certain categories of features evolved. In many cases, we can take genes from mice or fish and insert them into the DNA of invertebrates like fruit flies and get the same result. Such experiments are strong evidence that features like body plans and eyes evolved a really long time ago.

To be clear, there’s a lot of uncertainty which can probably never be resolved. We can prod algae in tanks to evolve the beginnings of multicellular bonding, but we have no idea if that particular direction is the one that our forerunners took.

Nevertheless, Your Inner Fish gives a good overview of how bacteria became bugs and fish, and how those bugs and fish became the bugs, fish, and people alive today. I certainly came away with an improved picture of how weird our bodies are and their many imperfections, though far from the whole picture. My curious is fairly sated, however—I’ve no plans to read the kinds of human anatomy texts I would need to really appreciate the magnitude of making men from microbes.

All told, I’d recommend Your Inner Fish as an entertaining and informative read about how human beings came to be. Neil Shubin has packed a lot of interesting scientific research into it, and with the exception of an example about hypothetical clown people in the final chapter, does a pretty good job of explaining it clearly. Definitely worth your time if the history of life on Earth intrigues you.


Do You Hate Math or Just Counting?

Last weekend KU held their annual Engineering Expo, a fairly typical sort of event for trying to get little kids interested in science and engineering. If you’re unsure what that might entail, come drop by next year.

Presumably this is fun for the little kids—most of them seemed pretty enthusiastic, and I never went to such events myself. And it’s fun for most of the students putting it on. We get to hang out with our friends, tell people about our majors, and get a day off class (though could you maybe have not scheduled it during midterms this year?). Half the fun is getting set up beforehand.

Because we’re nerds, we covered most of the leftover whiteboard space in the SEDS room with various engineering equations: thermo, flight dynamics, orbital mechanics, even the definition of a derivative. This predictably elicited a number of comments, mostly from parents but also from the kids themselves, about how much they hate(d) math.

This was particularly striking to me because when I was that age, I hated math. Or rather, hated what I thought was math. In elementary school, I didn’t know very much math. Pretty much all I knew how to do was glorified counting.

Addition? Counting. Subtraction? Backwards counting. Multiplication? Fast counting. Division? Backwards fast counting. Medians and means? Counting!

This pattern holds when we move onto the secondary school subjects. Algebra is almost entirely about counting graphically. Not all of geometry is counting, but a good fraction of it—vectors, for example—is. The same goes for a lot of trigonometry.

Only when you get to calculus, a senior year subject if it’s on the table at all, do you really start focusing on relationships versus the raw numbers. Calculus was the first math class which I enjoyed. That was the first time math became a tool rather than an obstacle. (Consistently, at least.)

A lot of students abandon mathematics long before they get to the stage where it becomes useful and meaningful. This concerns me. While there are plenty of people whose brains just aren’t made for math, there’s also a lot of great minds being lost because they aren’t made for endless dull arithmetic.

Spend years struggling away with contrived problems, truth held outside of grasp, and well, yes, giving up is certainly a reasonable response. You spent the last fifty years making science and math inaccessible and now, dear politicians and school administrators, you lament that more kids aren’t studying engineering. Behold the completely predictable consequences of your actions.

But this is not just an intellectual problem, or even an economic one. It’s a political nightmare.

Learning integral calculus completely rebuilt my perception of government finance. Just gaining an appreciation for statistics made me rethink dozens of policy positions. And yet I’d bet half our sitting Senators don’t even know what “differentiation” means. This should scare us shitless when they’re trying to plan for the next year, yet alone the next ten or twenty.

I hope that we changed a few minds last weekend, or at least planted a seed of doubt.  If technological civilization is going to survive the next 100 years, we need to rethink the way our culture approaches math and science. I’m severely tempted to do pro bono math education out of fear, but a few college kids can’t do it alone.

So, for your children’s sake: Do you hate math, or just counting?

Book Review: All The Birds In The Sky

[Note: I read this book on the recommendation of my now ex-girlfriend, and I can confidently say that that affected my reaction to the novel. Consider that as you will.]

I have mixed feelings about this one.

On the positive side, the writing is pretty good. I was sufficiently engaged to keep reading, even when I wanted to sit down the characters and lecture them about their life choices. For the most part, the plot was coherent and didn’t tend to lose me.

But those characters. My opinion of them turned negative in the first few chapters and never really recovered. Once the plot got rolling my feelings ended up relatively neutral, which is….less than one would hope for, given such explicit protagonists. The building action felt kind of drawn out, so this non-negative period was somewhat protracted.

One could justify such extended exposition in the service of extensive worldbuilding, but we don’t really get that. I spent a good part of the book wondering about the details of the disasters unfolding out-of-frame and the magical world Patricia disappeared into. We get a pseudo-explanation of the latter in the final chapter, but the resolution felt pretty forced and didn’t clear up very many loose ends. The denouement was about two pages.

Maybe there’s going to be a sequel that explores these things further. The book only came out this year, so who knows.

However, this frustration helped me realize something about myself: the reason I can’t write fiction is that I’m far more interested in building up a world than any story that could be set within it. Maybe I should team up with a plotmeister who wants to break into sci-fi. Contact me if you’re interested.

At this point it should be clear, dear reader, that I’m not exactly qualified to comment on the writing of science fiction novels, but in the spirit of the characters, I’m going to offer some recommendations anyway.

Firstly, if major plot issues could be resolved by better communication between the characters, it’s nice to give readers a reason why the characters aren’t having those much-needed conversations. Yes, it is possible that no one thinks to ask. But our protagonists are a genius and a literal witch (whose main character flaw is caring too much). I have questions if nothing else. Like, maybe I’m unusually inquisitive but Laurence seemed strangely accepting that actual for-real magic has suddenly appeared in his life.

Speaking of magic, there was a weird theme of techies-can’t-into-ethics running through the book which doesn’t really make sense in context (the book, or the real world). At one point, Patricia is chastising Laurence’s worldview for thinking that saving humanity is more important than saving the entire biosphere, a mere stretch goal for the story’s counterfactual SpaceX.

Patricia, you can talk to animals. You can heal HIV with a single touch. You can cut deals with space-time itself. Ordinary humans are playing an entirely different game.

This gets back into the communication thing. Convinced a team of mad scientists prodigious engineers are about to destroy the world? Have you tried talking to them about the risks involved?

Not that tech-types are liable to destroy the world, seeing as they’re some of the only people I’m aware of with any serious interest in solving morality, out of concerns that an artificial intelligence needs a coherent ethical system before we turn it on. Nick Bostrom calls this problem philosophy with a deadline. You can dismiss this claim if you want, I can’t stop you, but when one of the characters is an AI, then it’s, well, weird.

To be fair, it was awakened to consciousness and gets a lot of early training from Patricia, so talking to witches might be a good AI safety strategy. Shame MIRI can’t try that.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, YA near-future apocalyptic meets urban fantasy novel. Does it count as Young Adult when there’s a moderately explicit sex scene? I don’t remember if they covered that at WorldCon.

My final recommendation has to do with character development. Namely, if you go through great lengths to make a villain sympathetic, do give them some sort of redemption arc. We’re given a front-row seat to a cold-blooded assassin developing a conscience in the halls of an unsettlingly exaggerated portrayal of middle-school misery, and then—anti-climax. His scheme is foiled and his later appearances show few signs of further development. He’s still harking on the same MacGuffin, which we haven’t exactly forgotten about. So I’m not really sure what he’s doing here.

And it’s not that Anders is just bad at character re-introduction, because she does a pretty good job with several other reintroductions between sections. So I’m not sure what’s going on with him in particular. Perhaps it’s a touch of genre-bending realism.

So is All the Birds in the Sky worth recommending to the young adult reader in your life? As with so many things in life, that depends. Looking for some light entertainment? Go for it. Want a thought-provoking novel? There are better books out there. Expecting a well-developed science fantasy world? You might be disappointed.