Tag Archives: science

Why We Sleep – Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Walker, Mathew, PhD

An in-depth summary of current knowledge on the subject, by a researcher and sleep-geek unafraid to sound like a prophet in the wilderness.  His central creed is the imperative of 7 to 9 hours of sleep for every adult (more for children, varying by age), of an early to bed early to rise schedule that aligns with the sun’s presence and, most diabolically, of later school start times that would allow developing brains the early-morning REM sleep which data prove are critical to their ability to learn and, even more, to complete the complex brain-development necessary to achieve a healthy adult personality and abilities.

The many research citations go a long way to convince, as they also amaze with the cleverness of researchers, finding ways to determine what goes on during sleep, in minds that are, by definition, in no condition to report it.  Brain wave analysis is an obvious technical aid, but the comparison experiments he relates – involving specific sorts of lessons and challenges presented before and following specific extents of specific types of sleep – are more surprising. As is just the simple revelation that there are so many stages of sleep, each with its own character and purpose. 

A subject as broad as this naturally demands a polymath, and Walker is enough of one to cite pharmacology and chemistry in support of his arguments, literature regarding the origins of our long held illusions and more literature to show that humans have known at least some of this for generations, we’ve just allowed other priorities to blind us to what our bodies are screaming.  If we are to rise to the many challenges we humans create for ourselves ( politics, wars, climate change, social change, pandemics and general pandemonium, to name just a few), we’d do well to follow his advice.

Saving his most potent Jeremiad for last, the author addresses sleep aids, crying out against profitable products that make no effort to treat underlying conditions, but rather, simply sedate the user into a simulacrum of sleep with none of its functions.  If my own experience with Ambien during a week of all-nighters and 12-hour jet lag had not already been enough to turn me off of the stuff, this book certainly would.

Deserves to be more widely read.  And followed, though one holds out little help for that, in this age of pods, pads, tablets, laptops and streaming, screening, screaming masses.

Sleep well!

Endure, Alex Hutchinson

Subtitled Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, this in-depth survey of then-current (2018) scientific knowledge on the subject is written in the extended-magazine-article vein of Malcom Gladwell, who penned its foreword.  For a distance runner, it’s riveting stuff; as researchers ferret out the relative importance of physical versus mental fitness, of food, oxygen, hydration and heat, etc., etc.  For anyone else though, it’s likely to be too much by a multiple of miles.

All that science can use a little drama, so in addition to sprinkling in the anecdotes, Hutchinson wisely brackets segments of his book with the story of Nike and Eliud Kipchoge’s attempts to run a sub-2:00 marathon. The technology and resources devoted to that goal are staggering, as is the idea of what that pace demands of a human animal. An inspiring milestone, despite the questionable advantages employed to achieve it.

Even Hutchinson confesses by the end that it is all a bit confounding, and the best advice is still pretty simple.  His response is to quote this haiku by trainer Michael Joyner:

“Run lots of miles

Some faster than your race pace

Rest once in a while”

Practicing your craft and pushing your limits regularly are nothing new.  Perhaps the most significant piece of insight Hutchinson discovers is the importance of believing in your own potential to exceed past performance.  All the rest may make a small difference at the margins, but when race day comes it is often inspiration and commitment that make the difference between elation and disappointment.

My own thoughts at the end of this read were less about how to maximize one’s performance in endurance events, than of what that performance can mean to other aspects of life.  Running a marathon is never going to change the world (unless you are one of the genetically- and socially-blessed .001 percent, and even then will change it in only a very slim aspect), but having run a marathon can give one the confidence and strength to be better at any or all of the other things one does.  And that, I believe is where the real value lies, in the endurance of life itself.

Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake

Ostensibly a natural history of the kingdom of Fungi, this volume achieves its highest interest and greatest value when biological knowledge is extended outward like mycorrhizal hyphae to enrich other fields of thought.  It was, for example, during the study of lichens, those unbelievably prolific and durable partnerships between fungi and algae, that the word ‘synergy was coined, leading both author and reader to ruminate upon the ubiquity of synergies in human activities and the value of opportunism in finding new ones.

Fungal networks are exposed as ancient precursors to the Internet (Sheldrake devotes an entire chapter to what he has dubbed the ‘Wood Wide Webs’, and their contributions to the natural environment and its unnatural derivative – agriculture).  Darwin’s theories are subjected to reinterpretation as cooperative relationships in nature are seen to outnumber competitive ones by geometric factors. (Though Sheldrake does not specifically go there, this particular insight bodes ill for American society’s preoccupation with win/lose ball-sports as training ground and philosophical oracle – how much better off might our politics and civics be if we had chosen a cooperative paradigm, geographic explorations, perhaps, than the winner-take-all destroy-your-opponent-at all-cost strategy of pro football?)

And how many of us, among the general populace, knew that plants themselves do not actually capture water or nourishment from soil, but rather must rely on fungi both on and inside their roots in order to exist at all?  That those fungi cannot survive without feeding off products of the plants’ photosynthesis seems less striking, though Sheldrake reminds us it is so only because of our plant centric (and animal centric, mammal centric, primate centric, human-centric) way of viewing the universe. Another worthy insight.

Beyond even those, there is the chaos concept of intelligence – how organisms without brains can yet engage in problem solving and deduction  Whether finding their way through a maze or creating a web to find food and then pruning back the unproductive branches to concentrate energy and resources where they will have  most effect, fungal networks suggest ways in which many human phenomena actually operate, and in which others might be made more effective.    A fungal contribution likely even more valuable to future generations than say, penicillin (molds being a subset of fungi). 

At times reading too much like a graduate compendium of current research (the chapter on ‘Mycelial Minds,’ focusing at great length on the effects and mechanisms of psilocybin – Magic Mushrooms – and with them LSD, went on far too long, for my taste), Sheldrake at other times comes across as geekily lovable, as when relating early childhood experiences that led him to this field of  study.    Cleary capable and erudite, he is a worthy PR rep for this too-oft overlooked and underpublicized part of our natural world. (which we learn is the ‘life kingdom of fungi’, independent of the kingdoms of ‘plants’ and of ‘animals,’ all of which are within the Domain of Eukaryota – who would have guessed?),   

Truffles may be the most highly-prized variety, but this volume makes clear there’s plenty more in the fungal kingdom worth biting one’s teeth into than just those stinky delicacies.

The Three Body Problem

Geek fiction of the sci/poli sort. Set within the landscape of China’s autocratic-socialist movements and brigades, this first of a three volume series considers the possibility of ‘First Contact’ with alien life as a matter of existential fear and conviction. Fear, on the one hand, that an advanced civilization will take over and obliterate us,  and conviction, on the other, that we ourselves have devolved so much we’ve become a malignancy on the earth and the universe – or, to quote a current political figure about an invasion of a different sort – “what have you got to lose?”

Liu is a citizen and resident of the PRC, not an ethnic Chinese educated or residing in the west, which may explain why the events and rhythm of the book feel so plodding and academic; one suspects they reflect expectations and tastes shaped by decades of bureaucratic media and arts.   His detailed and historicist attention to the physics behind the story is informative, but similarly derails a central tenet of what one normally expects in a popular novel – drama. Add to that characters whose individuality is expressed only in the very narrow and internalized manner allowed by their society’s emphasis on conformity, obedience and reticence, and you end up with something rather challenging to get through, despite what seems a fluid translation from the original Mandarin.

Still, Liu is intelligent, knowledgeable and original, so one is very curious to see where it all will go (as well as whether the pace will pick up in future volumes). Maybe worth the time…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson

‘For people in a hurry,’ in the sense that it this is a tiny volume, pocket sized with barely 200 pages and not small type; and also in the sense that a universe of complex ideas are treated briefly and with concision. Perfect for those who want a general sense of what terms like multi-verse, dark energy and Boolean Algebra mean, without the years of schooling and boggled-brains it would take to really ‘know’ this stuff.

For those folks (of which I count myself one), Tyson does a great job, leading us in somewhat random-feeling steps from the relatively-intuitive astronomic understandings that give us a map of the nearby (solar system, asteroids) to the tougher concepts that make up our current best understanding what the entire universe consists of, how it was formed and how it behaves, at levels from the molecular to the quantum. Along the way he delivers plenty of staggering numbers such as:

the portion of all matter/energy which is visible vs that which is totally invisible except through its effects – that being ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ accounting, for if memory serves, some two thirds of all there is!

The number of molecules in a single cup of water – which is greater than the total number of cups of water in all the oceans of earth!

The number of bacteria in one inch of a human colon – which is greater than the number of all the humans who have lived through all time!

And many, many, more

Of particular appeal are passages recounting a few great miss-understandings which even great minds have labored under, and how those very mistakes eventually led them and others to new discoveries, an essential part of the scientific method which is sometimes lost in the shouting matches of reactionary culture wars.


Once all that knowledge has been disseminated, a final summation touts the intellectual and moral benefits of these concepts being understood widely, partly to cultivate the skills of thought that will lead to success in other pursuits, but more importantly  to instill the awe, wonder and humility that enable us to better appreciate and manage our environment and culture. Some of that falls flat, as when he suggests the absence of atmosphere in space means we should not engage in ‘flag-waving’ about space exploration – a very tenuous stretch of analogy. For the most part though, Tyson is an inspiring democratizer.

All in all, a worthy volume to read, and perhaps a good tool to raise the level of conversation at cocktail parties and Covid-lock-down video calls. Thanks NdGT!

(which now that I’ve typed it out, looks like an algebraic designation of some great import…if I assign the value of G as 27 to tenth power, and T as the length of time since the big bang, and d as the cosmic constant, can I solve for the value of N?  Hope your not holding your breath!)