A time to relax and read something different!

By Gareth Arnott

As the holidays approach we can look forward to a break from work and a catch up with family and friends. It’s also an opportunity to expand our reading horizons beyond our research area and relax with a good book. I thought I would pass on a couple of my favourites that were given to me several years ago by a biologist friend. For those who feel guilty when not working on their research you can also take heart from the fact that these recommendations revolve around real life biologists and therefore constitute valuable learning material!

The first book that I defy you not to enjoy is ‘A Primate’s Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa”. Written by Robert Sapolsky, now a Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford, it documents his early days doing field based research for his PhD on a troop of baboons in Kenya. You will be taken on an adventure, learning how to sneak up and dart suspicious baboons, and many other exploits including being taken hostage. The book is beautifully written and full of humour, while also deeply moving in parts. There are plenty of lessons for any budding biologist, including PhD students, as well as lots of inspiration for scientists a bit further along their career path.

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The second offering would likely be better read in the New Year when seeking to set a few healthy resolutions. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised by this offering “Why We Run: A Natural History” by Bernd Heinrich. Before those of you averse to physical activity stop reading you should know that Heinrich is an excellent biologist (Professor of Zoology), award-winning nature writer, and ultramarathoner (setting American records for a range of distances). In this book Heinrich explores how endurance running has shaped the evolution of the human body form, enabling us to achieve an impressive level of ultraendurance. Those sceptical of this statement may like to take a look at this Nature paper (‘Endurance running and the evolution of Homo, Nature, 432, 345-352). Heinrich’s writing style is a blend of biology, anthropology, psychology and philosophy that is easy to read and might well inspire you to get out the door and try a run. I am also told his book ‘A Year in the Maine Woods’ is a great read for those wishing to be transported to a quieter existence in which Heinrich spends a year observing the wildlife from a cabin in the western Maine wilderness. I have not had the pleasure of reading this one yet.

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The final option I offer up is an easy one. Just get a copy of the New Scientist Christmas special. It’s out later this week and usually has plenty of amusing articles, with a festive science slant. They also tend to provide good inspiration for conversation starters with your friends in the pub over the holiday period. I wish you all a happy and relaxing Christmas holiday.

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2 comments on A time to relax and read something different!

  1. On a similar note, ‘Throwim Way Leg’ or ‘Among the islands’ written by Tim Flannery, an Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist and environmentalist are both amazing reads. Having paved his career carrying out pioneering work in the South Pacific Islands and Papa New Guinea, not only will you learn about all the wonderful wildlife he encountered through the years but also about the native people he met. their culture, traditions and rituals. Challenging the way we look at and think about the world one of my favourite passages from the book recounts how a tribal chief looked after him when he was carrying out sampling in the highland forests of Papa New Guinea. The chief would proudly tell the story of how he “acquired” his son in which he raided the neighbouring tribe, beat his son’s biological parents to death with a club and claimed his as his own flesh and blood. Every time this story would bring the chief and his (now adult) son to tears of happiness and joy.

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