The SciFri Book Club Takes a Hike
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. With beach weather upon us, the SciFri book club is back from its spring break, ready for a little exercise outside, so to speak, compared to what our (unintelligible) here with our book club, here with me are book club regulars Flora Lichtman, our correspondent and managing editor for video, senior producer Annette Heist. Welcome.
ANNETTE HEIST, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: Tell us about - this was a really interesting book for couch potatoes.
HEIST: I think we chose this book when it was about three degrees outside, and we were all ready to just even read about nature and possibly being warm. So the book is "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail" by Bill Bryson. It came out in hardcover in 1998.
FLATOW: Yeah, a lot of people have read it, right?
FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: I found that - I was reading it, and many of my friends had already read it.
FLATOW: Yeah, it is a very readable book.
HEIST: It is.
FLATOW: I'll say that, right, it's very easy to read.
LICHTMAN: Two thumbs up for me. Yeah, I thought so too. It was amazing - I mean this really is about a walk in the woods. That's the title, and that is what it's about. And incredibly, you're glued to every page, or I was, anyway. I really - these microdramas of hiking, I was on the edge of my seat. Is he going to see a bear? Is he not going to see a bear? What about that moose?
HEIST: He's so funny. I think that's what keeps you involved. But I felt - spoiler alert, even though the book came out in 1998, they don't hike the entire Appalachian Trail, and I don't mean that to be disparaging. I can totally understand why. I thought that's what it was going to be when I started to read it, and when they gave up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I have to say I felt relieved that...
LICHTMAN: You felt relieved?
HEIST: I did, I did.
LICHTMAN: I didn't feel that way.
HEIST: I felt like I was off the hook, like I don't ever have to do this either.
FLATOW: You thought if he did it, then you would have to do it?
HEIST: It's been in the back of mind somewhere for a long time that I would do that one day, and if I - like the older you get, the better you know yourself. Like am I really ever going to do that? And reading this book, I'm like probably not. Like I'm never going to go to Everest, either, probably, after I saw the IMAX movie.
LICHTMAN: But I actually thought, I thought the best parts of the book were when they were hiking the trail. So Bill Bryson hikes the trail with his friend, Stephen Katz, who I think is like the bookmaker. I mean every time...
FLATOW: Steals the show, as they would say.
HEIST: I think that's the way to say it.
LICHTMAN: Yeah, he steals the book. And I thought those were the most fun parts of the book, by far, is when they were hiking together on the trail. So I was sad.
HEIST: (Unintelligible) I missed him when he wasn't there. So they're supposed to make a movie out of this book. It's been in the works for a long time. And who would you cast as Katz? Any ideas, Ira? I don't mean to put you on the hook, but I can tell you who they're thinking of for Katz.
FLATOW: Who would I cast as - David Paymer.
HEIST: David Paymer. (Unintelligible) that the guy that everyone says...
FLATOW: He looks like me.
FLATOW: I'll get even with him, have his cast as...
HEIST: All right, well, you can be the Bill Bryson character...
HEIST: Nick Nolte is the person that they (unintelligible) to play Stephen Katz.
FLATOW: Oh, Nick Nolte. Yeah, I can see him in...
HEIST: I can too, although these two men in the book are in their mid-40s, I think, when they set out. So Robert Redford as the Bill Bryson character and Nick Nolte.
FLATOW: He's a little past the 40s.
HEIST: A tiny, tiny bit, but he's Robert Redford, who cares?
HEIST: So I can see it, I can see it, but they've gone through a couple directors, so who knows.
FLATOW: Let's give out the number, 1-800-989-8255, if you've read Bill Bryson's "A Walk In the Woods," or if you'd like to know more about it. But share with us what your thoughts are - you know, what it is. And we already have a caller in. Let's bring in - let's get caller number one, Karen from Lebanon, Ohio. Hi, Karen.
KAREN: Hi, I was so excited to hear that this was your book today because it's one of my all-time favorite books.
FLATOW: It is?
KAREN: It's a great laugh-out-loud read, and it's one of the best audio books too, with Ron McLarty as the reader. It's just absolutely terrific. I wanted to tell you just a little aside about this. Several years ago I gave it to my dad to read because I knew he would really enjoy it, he would get a kick out of it. He read it, loved it so much. It was the year that he was turning 80 years old, and it became a bucket list item.
He said, you know what, I want to walk part of the AT. So...
HEIST: All right.
KAREN: So that summer on a family trip down to Gatlinburg, he wanted to walk the passage from Clingmans Dome to Newfound Gap, and it was quite fun, quite an experience we'll never forget. We even saw a bear right on the trail, so...
KAREN: It was great.
FLATOW: Bill Bryson talks a lot about bears and being fearful of them in the book. So he saw one.
KAREN: Yes, yes.
HEIST: And lived to tell about it, obviously.
FLATOW: Well, thank you Karen, that was quite interesting. In regards to your family, do you think you're going to walk it at all, if your father...
KAREN: No, I am - how old am I now? I think I'm 46. So I don't see myself as ever being a true hiker. But someday I would like to do just little bits and pieces of it and, you know, have a long weekend on the trail. I think that would be really awesome.
FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling, have a good weekend.
KAREN: Absolutely, you too.
LICHTMAN: I'm going to gripe a little bit because it wouldn't be book club without a gripe, right? Am I right? He...
FLATOW: Pass the scones while you're doing that.
LICHTMAN: When we get to Pennsylvania, I just, I get kind of - I feel defensive about his descriptions of some parts of Pennsylvania. Here he is talking about it. He says: I never met a hiker with a good word to say about the trail in Pennsylvania.
FLATOW: I wonder why that is that you're upset.
LICHTMAN: I take umbrage with that. There are some nice parts of the trail, although I understand what he - in the part that he's talking about, it is an area around Palmerton, Pennsylvania that's been damaged, ecologically damaged by a zinc smelting operation that went on there a long time ago, and a lot of the vegetation, most of the vegetation on the mountain was lost.
And it does look sort of like a moonscape. But it's just a small part. There are other nice parts of Pennsylvania. He also says that it has - that part of the trail has the very worst maps ever produced for hikers anywhere.
LICHTMAN: Useless, comically useless, heartbreakingly useless, dangerously useless maps. And so that's my second gripe, is he talks a lot about the difference that a good map makes when you're hiking, which I completely agree with, but there's not a map in this book. I would have liked to have followed along with where he was.
FLATOW: Good point. And you know, there is a part in the book where - right at the beginning, where they have to take literally the kitchen sink with them on their back, and they get rid of it very quickly.
LICHTMAN: Yeah, Katz does anyway.
HEIST: By just throwing it away, even his water, though, in some parts, right, and like important things that you might need but that are heavy like water.
LICHTMAN: Yeah, it's funny. I like the way that Bryson writes about science. Can I read a little bit of that?
LICHTMAN: So he says, I'm no geologist. Show me an unusual piece of greywacke, I probably said that wrong, greywacke? Our listeners will know.
FLATOW: I'm sure they will - we'll hear about it.
FLATOW: Tweets are coming in.
LICHTMAN: Or a handsome chunk of (unintelligible), and I will regard it with respect and listen politely to what you have to say, but it won't actually mean anything to me. And he just - he'll squeeze in some interesting science, but it's always accessible. I feel like you have, you have someone who doesn't try to sound smart in this book to make it more accessible, and I really appreciate that.
HEIST: He's also encountering everything for the first time. So I think he approaches it like that. Like I'm not a geologist, so I'm going to write about this for you who you're also not a geologist. So I think the language is very accessible.
LICHTMAN: Right, and then he also then goes on to explain it, which I love, you know.
HEIST: Yeah, yeah, I agree.
FLATOW: Done his homework.
HEIST: I think in some parts he has, not all parts, I would say. I felt like there could be just a little bit more information in some areas. I don't mean to be so critical of it. I did really like the book. But it - OK.
FLATOW: No, it's OK, because we have a guest, a special guest we want to bring on.
HEIST: Yes, we do.
FLATOW: Towards the end of the book he recounts a brush with hypothermia that he had in the White Mountains, and he says something interesting I think most people don't know, I mean that hypothermia isn't what we think it is. You're not outside all the time and running around and getting cold.
HEIST: Right, it's not when people set out on a frosty, cold, snowy day that you get hypothermia, because when people set out when it's really cold, they're prepared for the cold. It happens when you set out on a sunny day, you start walking up a mountain. You don't know or understand that the temperature is going to drop when you get to the top, but it happens.
And the White Mountains are notorious for those fast-changing weather conditions, and that's actually where Bryson writes about his brush with hypothermia. So our next guest surveyed some White Mountain hikers, and in his study published in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, he found that most hikers are underprepared for a day in the woods.
Ryan Mason is with us. He's a fourth year med student at Brown University's Alpert Medical School. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN MASON: Hi, how are you doing?
HEIST: Great, how are you?
FLATOW: Hey there.
MASON: I'm great. Hi, Ira.
FLATOW: So why - well, let's get right to it. What are the things that they're taking that they shouldn't have, and what things should they take?
MASON: Sure, and let me just first, before I go through the list, I want to say that the ultralight community and people that do through-hikes on these longer trails, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, are going to have a completely different mindset about this, and my study was aimed at more a day hiker or the average person hiking.
So the New Hampshire Fish and Game and the White Mountain National Forest put out a list called the 10 essentials, and they recommend that you bring these on every hike regardless if you're out for an hour or 10 days. And so the items they recommend are a map, compass, extra clothing, rain gear, a way to start fire, a light - as in a headlamp or a flashlight - extra food and water, a pocket knife, a first aid kit and a whistle.
FLATOW: A whistle.
MASON: Mm-hmm. Yup.
FLATOW: Why whistle?
MASON: Annette asked a similar question when I was speaking to her earlier, and it's actually for location in case you're lost. You can imagine if you've ever yelled for a long time, your voice goes fairly quickly, and your voice actually doesn't travel that far. But if you're in a state where you're cold or injured or just exhausted and people are looking for you, a whistle is a very easy way to broadcast your location for a good distance.
FLATOW: I think that description says why you need to do these things, because if you're going out, you're saying to yourself, I'm just going for a hike. Why do I need any of this stuff, right?
MASON: Right, right.
HEIST: So what did you find? What were people commonly forgetting to bring? Or maybe the first question we should ask or the next question is how many people were prepared with all of those things?
MASON: Over the - I surveyed 199 folks, and through - in that whole group, about one in five people carried all 10 of those items.
MASON: I relaxed it a little bit and called prepared, quote-unquote, as eight or more items, and about 40 percent people carried all eight or carried eight of those items.
LICHTMAN: I'm amazed that one in five had a compass.
FLATOW: But you can't - being an old Boy Scout, speaking for myself...
LICHTMAN: Yes, Ira?
FLATOW: ...you can't just carry a compass. You have to know how to use it.
MASON: Absolutely. That was one of the limitations of my study. I wasn't sure, you know, if you're carrying it, if you necessarily knew how to use it.
FLATOW: Yeah. And especially if you have a map, how to put it on a map and read it and all that kind of stuff.
MASON: Right, yeah. That's a whole new...
FLATOW: But I would imagine - I watch kids - I'm not going to say which kids. I watch kids today, and they just go out of the house with nothing on. They got their cellphone. Don't worry. I'll be OK.
FLATOW: And then go on a hike and Wham-O.
MASON: Right, yeah. We actually found a lot of folks were carrying cellphones. They didn't report that they changed their hiking behavior because of it, as in, you know, doing a harder trail because, oh, I have my phone. But a lot of people, especially in the White Mountains, because of the geography, don't realize that there's a lot of dead zones, pockets where you don't get reception.
FLATOW: Hmm. Dead zones will have a different meaning now.
MASON: Right. Yeah. Poor choice of words.
FLATOW: No, it's a good choice of words. Let me remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're with our book club, talking about the book - Bill Bryson's book, "A Walk in the Woods," and also talking about what you should take with you when you hike with Ryan Mason.
Can - is there something - I mean should park rangers or should the parks put out a little brochure right at the hiking trail, take this along with you if you're coming into the woods?
MASON: In New Hampshire they do. Basically any visitors center, you can pick up a pamphlet that clearly displays these. And in many of the trailheads, the start of the trails, you can find which items you're supposed to carry. It's just a question of - you mentioned before, I'm just going for a hike, a day hike.
MASON: We found out that, really, that perception is the problem, that people don't perceive a longer hike as being as dangerous.
HEIST: No one's planning to get lost.
MASON: Yeah. Yeah. Or shorter hike, I'm sorry. Yeah.
HEIST: Yeah. And we should emphasize that this - the list that you gave us, that was for the White Mountains. I think you told me that that's issued by a group, you know, specifically for that area. If people are hiking in other parts of the country, they can consult with local hiking groups for what might help them where they are, like a snake bite kit, maybe, depending on where you are.
FLATOW: One essential that I take with me everywhere is some sort of windbreaker, because people do not realize...
FLATOW: ...how much the wind really cools you off...
MASON: Especially after you're done hiking a ridge and you're very sweaty.
Yeah. It's a killer, so to speak, if you don't have - well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.
MASON: No problem. Thank you for having me on.
FLATOW: Do you have a hike planned for the summer?
MASON: Yeah. I'm hoping to climb Katahdin...
FLATOW: Oh, in Maine.
MASON: ...up in Maine. Yeah.
FLATOW: That's the end of the trail, sort of.
MASON: Yeah. Not the whole trail.
MASON: I was just going to get up there and hike some of the wilderness up there.
FLATOW: Yeah. A lot of kids in camp do that, climb Mount Katahdin. Yeah. OK. Well, good luck to you. Take those 10 things along.
MASON: I will. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Ryan Mason, fourth-year med student at Brown University's Alpert Medical School. Wish him luck doing that.
LICHTMAN: One of the - just relatedly, I love the part in the book where Bill Bryson comes upon the person with the enviro monitor. You remember that?
LICHTMAN: This measures eight values - temperature, UV index, dew point.
FLATOW: The geeky hiker, you think?
LICHTMAN: Very geeky.
HEIST: But the guy's in, like, shorts and sneakers, he doesn't seem to have any gear, and he's hiking up the White Mountain, remarking on how the weather might change, right?
LICHTMAN: Yeah. Bill Bryson sort of hands it to him. I feel like he's pretty - he has a lot of disdain for this kind of technology...
FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in - Colton in Baton Rouge. Hi, Colton, and welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
COLTON: Hello, hello. Great show, Ira Flatow. I've been waiting for a - for the subject matter on the Appalachian Trail for a long time now, so happy to hear it.
FLATOW: Thank you.
COLTON: So, yeah. I - my girlfriend, myself and our dog hiked the trail last year...
COLTON: ...from Georgia to Maine. Now, we missed a small section, but I brought along a camera, which a lot of people looked at me and thought I was crazy for carrying an extra seven to eight pounds. And also our dog had a little camera on his backpack, so you have kind of a dog's eye view.
COLTON: But this proved to be very difficult as far as the technology on the trail because keeping things charged was just so difficult. You know, that consists of a lot of solar panels and just kind of stopping whenever you can to get an electrical outlet. I even carried a multiplug. You know, you plug it in one and then you got three plugs and two USB ports. And people thought I was crazy for having that until we all only had one plug, and then suddenly everybody has their phones and their cameras all hooked up into my one little, you know, half-pound plug that I carried along. But I feel Bill Bryson did pretty well. It's kind of amazing that he only did 600 miles and still inspired so, so many people to hike the trail.
FLATOW: Well, we're waiting, Colton, for your book to come out, the whole trail...
COLTON: Well, it's actually a film. It's called "The Climb to Katahdin," and it's - it was quite a journey because, you know, having a dog on the trail is also a whole 'nother thing, too, because there's only so many places...
FLATOW: All right.
COLTON: ...you can stay when you really need a break in town that just don't allow dogs.
FLATOW: I believe it. We'll look for the movie. Thanks for coming on with us and talking about it. We're gonna come back and talk more about our book club after this break. Stay with us. 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us at SCIENCE FRIDAY, @scifri, and maybe you've hiked the trail like he did without the cameras. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Our SCIENCE FRIDAY book club is in session, gaveling this section of it open. We're talking about Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods," a good book to stash in your backpack, or maybe you just enjoy the hike vicariously from the - yeah, the comfort of a hammock or your beach blanket. It's a good spot to read that book too.
And we have some more reading suggestions for you. We asked you to submit your top book selections for our summer reading list, and lots of you sent in your suggestions. We whittled them down to a list of just 15. I think that could last the summer. You can find the list on our website at sciencefriday.com/summerbooks.
And joining us now to talk about those books and some others that you might want to include on your summer reading list is Deborah Blum. She's a Pulitzer Prize winner and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She's written a whole bunch of books. Let's pull one out - say "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." Welcome back.
DEBORAH BLUM: Thanks. It's great to be here.
FLATOW: Are you lining up your summer reading list?
BLUM: I am. In fact, I'm sitting here in Madison, Wisconsin with stacks of books all around me.
FLATOW: Stacks of books. Well, let's...
FLATOW: Let's get right to your stack. What's at the top of your stack?
BLUM: Well, right now, actually, it's semi-related to the Bryson book. I'm reading a book called "The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature," and it's actually written by - I can't say that - a biologist named David George Haskell. It is such a beautiful book. He takes - he's a biologist in Tennessee. He takes just a square meter of old-growth forest and he watches it for a year. And he uses this tiny little plot of land to sort of illuminate our world and the way nature changes. And I have it in front me. Listen to the way he writes about lichen.
Their radiance comes not from stone but from mantles of lichens that blush emerald, jade and pearl in the humid air.
He's describing stones. I mean every single page has this kind of poetry of nature in it. I love the book. But it's slow reading. I mean it's hammock reading, right?
HEIST: It sounds great.
BLUM: It's beautiful. You know, it's not intensely dramatic, but it's one of those books where you go, aren't we lucky to live here? It's that kind of book.
FLATOW: Wow. Let me give you my favorite book, and my daughter turned me on to this. And it's a science fiction book but has such great science overtones to it, and it's the "Wool" series, you know, by Hugh Howey. And it's just a page-turner, and it's a scary, scary science fiction book. And...
BLUM: And I gave that to my son to read. And he was a bookseller, wasn't he? And he wrote it in his spare time.
FLATOW: Yeah. He wrote it, you know, you get it on Amazon. I think they give away...
HEIST: I think as an eBook first.
FLATOW: It's an eBook. They gave it away for a year or so, was free, and then...
HEIST: First one's always free.
FLATOW: And now there's parts one through five...
BLUM: Not mine.
FLATOW: ...an original series.
FLATOW: Then there's six, seven, eight, and now nine is coming out in August, and I can't wait for the series. But it's just wonderful reading.
BLUM: So - well, I'll go back and steal that from my son now.
HEIST: Deborah, this is Annette. I know you like Brian Switek's book, "My Beloved Brontosaurus." We talked to him a few months ago and we wanted to play a clip from that interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
BRIAN SWITEK: Well, yeah, in the original papers, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who named Tyrannosaurus rex, you know, he couldn't figure out, you know, why this massive sort of deep-skulled, knife-toothed dinosaur would have such puny-looking arms. So he figured that maybe, you know, during mating the male sort of stroked or cuddled the female with these little arms. But you really shouldn't laugh at Tyrannosaurus rex. You couldn't beat an arm-wrestling contest with this dinosaur if you tried. Each arm could curl about 400 pounds.
FLATOW: Wow, wow, so...
HEIST: Keep that in mind.
FLATOW: Deep that in mind next time you take down a T-rex.
HEIST: What did you like about that book? I mean it sounds enticing just from that clip. I haven't read it, but tell us what you liked about it.
BLUM: Well, it's actually, I mean it's like a very small book, which appeals to some people, but it's so wonderfully smart and affectionate at the same time. I mean, think of the title, "My Beloved Brontosaurus," which goes back to when we use to call the apatosaur the brontosaur and got the name wrong. And I think they'd even, at one point, put the skeleton together wrong. So it's got this fabulous sense of history of dinosaurs. And in this kind of journey in which he explains the way we see them and what we - they mean to us, he just illuminates what they are and how they thought and how they moved and how they looked.
And he does - my favorite dinosaur is the stegosaur. Don't ask me why. I just love those little, you know, those kind of wrinkly plates and the spiky tail. So - and so I was thrilled to have him talk about some of the cool things we know about that. It's just fun to read.
FLATOW: Our number: 1-800-989-8255, if you have - want to get in on our book club. Talking with Deborah Blum. Suggestions for books? What would - what did our listeners say that liked?
HEIST: Flora, go ahead.
LICHTMAN: I think one of the books on our listeners list and also on my own list was Mary Roach's book "Gulp," which came out recently. And this is a book that was just filled with disgusting...
LICHTMAN: ...details about the human body. But it was (unintelligible)
FLATOW: You love to be disgusted (unintelligible)
LICHTMAN: Well, I clearly do, because I really enjoyed it. And we have a clip of Mary Roach to give you a sense, a flavor so to speak.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MARY ROACH: Hydrogen sulfide - the human nose is exquisitely sensitive, able to detect less than one part per million. And a noxious fart would have in the neighborhood of two or three parts per million. But when you take it up to about 1,000 parts per million, hydrogen sulfide is fatal. It causes respiratory paralysis, and it kills people quite swiftly.
LICHTMAN: There you have it. Farts, if they were...
FLATOW: In all its graphic glory.
LICHTMAN: ...in higher quantity would be not fatal enough.
HEIST: I always had a feeling.
BLUM: Isn't she great, though?
FLATOW: She's great.
BLUM: And, you know, well, like her first book, "Stiff," about the science of corpses, was so wonderfully creepy and funny at the same time. Do you know what I liked about "Gulp" and - so this, unfortunately, says something about me - I think I was telling Annette this - is that at the start of the book, she sort of starts in your mouth and ends where it ends, right, in the digestive system. But she starts with spat and taste.
And there's this fabulous chapter in which she's talking about pet food and how they make the different chemicals that they use to make pet food attractive to pets, why - what cats like, what dogs like. And, of course, in the way I think we relate to books 'cause, you know, they speak to us in our own lives, I kept thinking about the fact that when I was a kid, I ate pet treats, those...
BLUM: ...Purina ones that were shaped like fake cheese and stuff. I started really worrying about myself.
FLATOW: How did they taste? (Unintelligible)
LICHTMAN: True confessions (unintelligible)
FLATOW: Were they good? They taste good?
BLUM: Yeah. You know, they were very bland. They're kind of crunchy and bland.
LICHTMAN: That was my question.
FLATOW: And so they weren't worth the calories.
LICHTMAN: I can't believe I've never tried one.
BLUM: Yeah. I can't really recommend them. But I started to worry what was actually in them, too, afterwards.
BLUM: I don't think they have the same sort of standard of hygienic control...
FLATOW: They may be healthier for us, you never know.
BLUM: Right. Yeah, (unintelligible) It's a wonderful book. You know, she just makes it so smart and fun. I'm a huge fan of her work.
HEIST: She is fun to talk to as well. I think she's - not only, you know, reading. She come - her voice comes through in the book when you talk to her in person. She's - it just goes together so well.
HEIST: One of the books that our listeners chose for their top 15 is "The Lives of a Cell. I've never read this book. I'm almost embarrassed to say. But, Deborah, I know that it's one of maybe your favorites on this list.
FLATOW: That's a classic. Yeah.
HEIST: Tell us about that.
BLUM: So "The Lives of a Cell was written, what, Ira, about 50 years ago (unintelligible)
FLATOW: Oh, yeah. Something like that, in the '50s, yeah.
FLATOW: I think it was in the '50s.
BLUM: And it was written by Lewis Thomas who was a doctor, an MD. And I - and again, it's a little book. It's really a collection of essays in which he looks at sort of tiny parts of what makes us alive, you know, and it's lyrical and beautiful. And I read it right actually very early when I was a science writer. I was thinking about being a science writer. And I think for a lot of people who write about science like me, there's always a book. This was the book that said to me, guess what, if you do it right, you can make science beautiful, right?
FLATOW: He was...
LICHTMAN: I mean...
FLATOW: Yeah, he was sort of the Oliver Sacks of his time, if I remember back, you know, a great scientist who could communicate very well what he was doing.
BLUM: It's so that he'll even take, you know, a little hairy part of mitochondria and you read it and you go, well, that is so exquisite. And so I love the book. I think anyone who likes to think about how we tell stories with science should read that book.
LICHTMAN: And speaking of Oliver Sacks, I'd like to throw in "Hallucinations" for our summer book club because I thought that was a really interesting book to read. It chronicles some of Dr. Sacks' own personal experimentation with drugs back in a different lifetime, I think.
LICHTMAN: But it was fun. Did you read that book, Deborah?
BLUM: No, I haven't read - I've only read parts of that book. You know, I have this kind of can't-go-wrong-with-Oliver-Sacks kind of feeling, although just because I'm a chemistry geek, right, his "Uncle Tungsten" book is still my favorite.
FLATOW: "Uncle Tungsten," great book.
BLUM: Isn't that a great title? Yeah, it's wonderful.
FLATOW: Yeah. It's a great book.
HEIST: Deborah, I know you read "Spillover" by David Quammen. We have a clip of an interview we did with him. This is him on SCIENCE FRIDAY talking about the emergence of a new virus that had killed 13 horses and a horse trainer. This happened in Australia in the mid 1990s. Let's hear that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DAVID QUAMMEN: They isolated a virus from the dead horse trainer, and it was a virus they'd never seen before. They looked in the horses. They found the same virus. They gave it the name Hendra, and then they started on the detection work trying to figure out where this virus had come from and how it had spilled over into the horses.
FLATOW: Wow. Well, it sounds like that movie.
BLUM: You know...
FLATOW: "Contagion." Yeah.
BLUM: And it's a scary book in some ways. And that whole thing with Hendra and this mysterious stuff of horses and then vets die and animal handlers die and they can't figure out what's going on is the opening of "Spillover," and it's just this riveting opening where you are thinking to yourself, what is going on?
And he uses it really well to set up what is my favorite part of "Spillover," which is the fact that it places - he's looking at emerging infections and he - you follow him around the world as he's sort of unraveling this story, and he goes into all kinds of sometimes very risky places. But he's basically saying to us, as we read it, look what trouble we're stirring up.
We're going into these jungles that used to be left untouched. We're marching into this cave. We're stripping away this forest. And these ancient viruses that have - sort of, peacefully hunkered down in populations that we never got near, we're stirring them out. And then we're putting them on airplanes, and we're taking them around the world.
And so you really see him connect us both to our place in the natural world and to the reason that we're starting to see more of these viruses sort of leaking out forest and cave. He does a beautiful job with that. He really does.
FLATOW: The name of the book again for people who now really want to read it?
FLATOW: "Spillover" by?
LICHTMAN: David Quammen.
BLUM: David Quammen.
FLATOW: David Quammen. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
You're listening to our Book Club, and we're talking whole bunches of people who read a lot of books. Deborah, do you read so many books? I mean, you're always reading books and you're reviewing them. How many books do you read?
BLUM: Oh, I've lost count - I always have to have - it's like - I'm like a book junkie, right?
BLUM: I have lot - even the bed in my bedroom has this kind of ledge that goes behind the pillows and I shove books - I'm lucky I don't roll over and disappear under an avalanche of books. But...
FLATOW: Do you rather read e-books now or you still in the paper phase?
BLUM: I do some of both, right? If it's a book that - and it's like this word thing for me - if it's a book that I think I'm going to read once, I'd just as soon have it as E, right? But if it's a book that I want to keep and read over and over again and stroke the cover...
LICHTMAN: Toggling the pages. Yeah.
BLUM: ...right - marking up and admire its physical beauty, then I want it in hardback. So I have a lot of hardback books. And, you know, I judge a fair amount of book. I was a non-fiction judge for the Pulitzer a year or so ago, and I'm a judge for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Science Writing Award this year. So a lot of books come my way that way too.
LICHTMAN: I wanted to ask you about a book that just came my way, "Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Brainless Neuroscience." Do you - have you read that yet?
BLUM: In fact, I have it right here. I just got that. And I got it, in part - a bunch of - several of my friends, writing friends, had just been buzzing about that book. And I think it's, in part, because there has been this kind of low-level disgruntled buzz in the science writing community that we make way too much brain imaging and what it tells. That, oh, I took a picture of my brain, and now I know I'm going to rob a bank next Tuesday kind of stuff, right?
FLATOW: It's (unintelligible).
LICHTMAN: And every week, there is study like that I think.
FLATOW: Please think as we're putting - that we're putting too much. It's - a macro picture doesn't tell us a whole lot about what's really going on.
BLUM: Yeah. That's exactly right. And this book - I mean, this is an interesting book because it's about half - a kind of an essay to that effect, oh get a grip on yourself, you know? Images of individual brains don't really tell us that next year's trend is pink Cadillacs.
And half footnote, it's almost as many pages - it's like a wonderful book for a geek-loving - well, what she really mean by that? You kind of think you've got this fabulous back section in which she goes through study after study and, you know, article after article in which she says, does this really make sense? And she, you know, she'll take case studies. You probably remember Andrea Yates, the woman who had postpartum depression...
LICHTMAN: Killed her children.
BLUM: Right. And she takes that study apart. You know, wood imaging really had told us anything. In fact, there is no good images related to postpartum depressions so, you know, let's put in perspective what neuroscience can and cannot tell us. In the criminal world, she looks at neuro-economics. It's really kind of a best smart read with, like I said, the best footnote section in the world.
LICHTMAN: And that was "Brainwashed" in case people think of catching it.
LICHTMAN: Sally - go ahead.
BLUM: Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld. I hope I'm - Lilienfeld, am I saying that right?
LICHTMAN: I don't know.
BLUM: I hope.
FLATOW: We never get names right here.
FLATOW: So you fit right in, Deborah.
BLUM: Thank you.
LICHTMAN: Anyway, the title is right. It's called "Brainwashed."
FLATOW: The title is right. Well, and any upcoming books are you working on, Deborah?
BLUM: Well, I'm working on a book - please tell my agent and my editor that I'm working on my book.
FLATOW: She's working.
BLUM: I'm working on my book, which is due at the end of this year, which is about the early history of poisonous food. It's another sort of - oh, it's such a cool story.
LICHTMAN: Sounds good.
FLATOW: Oh, dangling.
BLUM: Thank you guys. You're so great.
BLUM: But it's about a fairly insane scientist who is trying - who realizes that we've literally become very brilliant at making food very chemical and also very poisonous, and he's trying to stop it, and is actually kind of a nut himself. So it's a really cool story, but it's also about poisonous food.
FLATOW: Fit right in. Thank you, Deborah, very much for taking time to be with us today.
BLUM: It is always a pleasure.
FLATOW: Good luck. Good luck on the book. Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a professor of journalism, University of Madison - Wisconsin and Madison. And thank you, Flora Lichtman, Annette Heist.
LICHTMAN: You're welcome.
FLATOW: We gavel close this edition. Do we have book for next time?
LICHTMAN: sciencefriday.com/summerbooks for some of the books that we just talked about. The Web people worked hard on it.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Well, that's all the time we have for today. We want to remind you that if you're in the Seattle area, we want you to come and see us on June 14th.
So come out to Seattle at the Pacific Science Center. We're going to do our show from there. We like to have you in the audience. You can see Annette and, you know, see all of us out there, and drop by and say hello. And we'll hope to see you in the audience.
LICHTMAN: We'll pick a new book for next month soon. Keep tuned to our website.
FLATOW: Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
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