SCIENCE ROUNDUP

Sunday, July 8, 2007

BREATHING SPACE How Allergies Shape Our Lives And Landscapes By Gregg Mitman, Yale Univ. 312 pp. $30

Hay fever got you down? Feel an asthma attack coming on? Drop the inhaler and reach for Gregg Mitman's book instead. His inspired history of these ailments in the United States won't provide a cure but does offer a sort of palliative context. Mitman recounts how, in the 19th century, whole resorts sprang up for gaspers, eye-rubbers and sneezers (with money, of course). To the White Mountains of New Hampshire they would flee or to the northern shores of Lake Michigan. By 1920, 40 percent of Denver's residents had moved there for the clear, dry air.

Tracking the course of allergies is also about measuring the economies they spawned. Railroads, shipping lines, resorts, vacuum cleaner manufacturers and the climate control industry all sought to cash in on these woes. But the biggest reaper, needless to say, was and is the medical industry -- especially the pharmaceutical companies. As anyone who has turned on a television set knows, the drug companies are heavily into treating the conditions. And there's the rub, Mitman argues: We have developed enormous machinery to treat the symptoms but not to address the underlying causes, the physical and social environments that we have created. It's easy to reach for a pill or an inhaler, he says, "so much easier than addressing issues of land use, rethinking building construction, or confronting structural inequities in housing and health care in American society."

-- Adrian Higgins

MUSES, MADMEN, AND PROPHETS Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination By Daniel B. Smith, Penguin Press. 254 pp. $24.95

Daniel B. Smith believes that you don't have to be crazy to hear voices. Yet with 75 percent of schizophrenics reporting voices in their heads, Smith understands why "auditory hallucinations" could indicate that a person is a few stones short of a patio.

Smith traces how the word "hallucination," which implies pathology, gained favor; how the "secrecy of the brain's activity" prevents doctors from deciphering the physiology of voice-hearing; and how popular culture follows psychiatric thought. This book is slim on science, but it's hefty with history and resounds with details about Socrates and Joan of Arc, who both obeyed their voices right up until their executions.

Although Smith cautions against glorifying those who hear voices, he lends an ear made sympathetic by his father's struggle with auditory hallucinations. Some people find comfort, not anguish, he writes, in the messages that they alone detect. And he suggests that voice-hearers will always be among us and ought to be treated with sensitivity.

-- Susan P. Williams

TOO FAR FROM HOME A Story of Life and Death in Space By Chris Jones, Doubleday. 288 pp. $24.95

The core of Too Far From Home won Chris Jones the 2005 National Magazine Award for feature writing. He probably should have quit while he was ahead.

A dogged reporter who vacuums up facts, Jones tells the tale of the three astronauts temporarily stranded in the International Space Station after the shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003. The circumstances suggest an Apollo 13-like potential for high drama, and Jones writes as if it were so. But in fact the crew of the space station was never in any great danger.

In the absence of a thrilling tale, Jones goes off on long tangents -- about the admirable but hardly fascinating astronauts of space station Expedition 6, about the history of past space disasters, about what would happen physically to a space-walking astronaut cut loose from the mother ship, about the limits and strengths of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that ultimately came up to relieve them.

While Jones gives interesting detail about life on the space station and flying home on a Soyuz, all too often he gooses up his writing and pretends to know what the astronauts were thinking and feeling at different times. Both distract from the story.

-- Marc Kaufman

A NEW HUMAN The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia By Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee, Collins/Smithsonian. 256 pp. $25.95

When news broke in 2004 that archaeologists had found the remains of tiny "hobbit-like" people on the Indonesian island of Flores, the international reaction was intense and fascinated. A New Human is an informative, well-written and sobering inside account of the potential scientific importance of the find, as well as the politics, grandstanding and ill-will that surrounded it.

Australian Mike Morwood was the prime mover behind the discovery, and he and his co-writer, Penny van Oosterzee, detail how the team came to uncover the highly unusual and surprising remains. Morwood and van Oosterzee do a good job describing the archaeological dig, as well as walking readers through the fossil record of early humans in both Asia and Africa. Along the way, they make clear that the widely accepted theory that all modern humans came out of Africa has well-documented flaws.

It is dispiriting -- though probably inevitable -- that the find became the center of a bitter scientific controversy. Morwood and others argue that the 3-foot-tall, small-brained humans represent an important and revealing evolutionary discovery, while some archaeologists not involved in the dig (especially a prominent Indonesian) contend the remains are of a human-like species that suffered from the deforming neurological condition of microcephaly. The scientific dispute turned ugly when the critics used political maneuvering to take temporary control of the remains and allegedly damaged them significantly. At that point, Morwood writes, he wished he had never uncovered the fossils.

-- Marc Kaufman

The reviewers are Washington Post staff writers.


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