Finally another two books!

After not doing much book reading for most of this year, I can finally extend my 2022 Book List.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020) by Merlin Sheldrake

Written by an author with one of the most amazing names I’ve seen, Entangled Life is all about fungi. There are discussions on how fungi evolved, how they influence plant life, the truffles we eat and how we can use fungi for our own benefits, including one chapter that covers the technologies in The Moralbiont. Sheldrake is so obsessed with fungi that some of the illustrations in the book are even drawn with ink made from a fungus!

Although my interests and the book’s topic overlap quite well, I wasn’t crazy about all aspects of the book; several chapters are written in their own style and not all of them sat well with me. The chapter on truffles takes on the sort of narrative style which can drive a story along but which tends to irritate me as I find it all too convenient. I made a similar criticism about Darwin’s Ghosts a couple of years back. And there are other sections which are so effusive that it feels like he’s trying to make every other paragraph a pale, blue dot moment.

That said, I would still highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in microbiology. Stylistic quibbles aside, there is a lot of very good and very interesting information in the pages. Most of it I knew of already but there were also plenty of titbits which I had not yet encountered.

Pup Sloots (2020) by Phoenix Xander Artemis

Jumping from fungi to a gay, BDSM, petplay romance might seem like quite a leap but there is actually a microbiology connection between the two; Pup Sloots takes place during the time of coronavirus. More specifically, back in 2020 when things were crazy, no vaccines were available and hard lock-downs were enacted across the world. Despite what I expected, the majority of the, very short, book actually takes place after the lock-down restrictions are lifted.

The story is told through the first-person perspective of an alpha pup who meets someone the night before lock-down restrictions are enacted and who must then wait until they can continue building their romance in person. The entire relationship is built around BDSM dynamics, in particular puppy play, which is a form of role play where the participants act as human dogs. The book describes it all as well as the main character’s thought processes and motivations.

It’s an interesting book. I really enjoyed the dynamics of the relationship and how everything is described (although I think some of the language which is claimed as being specific to puppy play is really just Lolspeak and common to many internet communities, e.g. using “gib” for “give.”) but it will not be for everyone as it does all build up to explicit sex. That said, my only real hesitation with recommending it would be the length; it is not even 100 pages. However, the psychological aspects of the story are good and it is even educational. If one has any curiosity in that area then one could assuage that curiosity while also helping support a small-scale writer.

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Structuring society to counteract science denialism

The essay below is my entry to the OeAW’s (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/ Austrian Academy of Sciences) 2022 Preisfrage. The topic was “Fact or fiction: How to deal with scientific scepticism?”

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The problem of scientific scepticism, or, more accurately, science denialism, is a major one that has serious implications, particularly in modern society where so much is driven by scientific advances, and it is heartening that the Austrian Academy of Sciences has chosen it as a topic for this year’s Preisfrage. Before addressing the topic, I think it is necessary to clarify exactly what I do and don’t mean by certain terms to ensure that we all enter this discussion from the same starting point.

First, I will say that scepticism—questioning established knowledge—is good. Indeed, scepticism is a core principle of science itself. In science, all our knowledge is provisional, should be treated with scepticism and is accepted only to the extent that the current evidence supports it. However, the scientific scepticism that is of interest to the academy goes beyond this, to the extent that people, who lack the deep knowledge and training required to assess the evidence, doubt the scientific consensus in a manner that is disproportionate to the actual uncertainty of the conclusion. For this reason, I will not use the term scientific scepticism, which is a virtue that all scientists should share, and instead use science denialism which better captures that the problem is not scepticism itself but an unjustified denial of the scientific consensus.

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Commentary: The Moralbiont

Product concepts made with fungal leather (Image: Mylo)

This is the companion piece to my short story, The Moralbiont. It will discuss some of the references and science from the story. If you have not read the story yet, I would highly advise reading it first.

The conversation between Olivia and her grandfather about his thesis supposedly being covered in cow skin is a reference to a question from the Voight-Kampff test. In the Blade Runner franchise, the Voight-Kampff test is administered to those suspected of being a replicant, a human-like android lacking empathy. By monitoring the physiological responses to questions about shocking or repellent situations, you are able to tell if the subject is a real human or a replicant. I have neither seen Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner film nor read the original novel by Philip K. Dick but I did play the 1997 video-game which is where I became aware of the question.

Like my briefcase? Department issue, baby hide. 100% genuine human baby hide.

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Short story: The Moralbiont

Earlier this year, I entered the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS) writing competition. The goal was to write a flash fiction story (not more than 700 words) for the prompt “How Microbiology will Change our Future.” While I did not win, I was very happy to be shortlisted in the top 10 submissions and my story, The Moralbiont, is now available on the FEMS website. Additionally, you will be able to read the story below. As the story was written for a microbiology audience, not everything within may be common knowledge. In a follow-up post I will explain the references, technologies and terms which are important for the story.

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ESM 2022 poster: Patterns of bacterial-fungal co-occurrence in European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) deadwood

For those that were not able to attend the Ecology of Soil Microorganisms 2022 conference (which ran from 19-23 July in Prague, Czech Republic) I got permission to upload the poster which I presented. Being a scientist can also mean doing a bit of public speaking and graphic design. Below, you will find the abstract and poster.

Patterns of bacterial-fungal co-occurrence in European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) deadwood

Jason Bosch, Ema Némethová, Vojtěch Tláskal, Vendula Brabcová, Petr Baldrian

Deadwood represents an important nutrient source and microbial habitat in forest ecosystems. Its decomposition is one of the key processes of global carbon turnover considering that European natural forests can contain up to 1200 m3 of deadwood per hectare. This deadwood is primarily decomposed by saprotrophic fungi but bacteria also have a role to play, particularly in the provision of nitrogen. Previous work has shown that the first fungi to become established will physically prevent further colonisation by other fungi. As bacteria and fungi can interact in both synergistic and antagonistic ways, we expect that these fungal zones of control will also influence the bacterial community composition at local scales.

We investigated the patterns of microbial diversity and co-occurrence in 1 cm3 blocks of European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) deadwood collected from the Žofínský prales National Nature Reserve in the Czech Republic, using 16S and ITS amplicon sequencing. Compared to previously-collected “whole log” communities, the small-scale communities showed less diversity both individually and in combination. By correlating fungal and bacterial species, we were able to expand on previous work which showed that fungi influence bacterial community composition. As small-scale microbial communities collected from the same log can differ dramatically from one another, we advise caution when interpreting “whole log” microbial community data as the results may not reflect the actual interactions which take place in the deadwood.

If you would like to cite the poster, you can use the abstract book citation:

Piché Choquette S., Slaninová Kyselková M., Pospíšek M., Baldrian P. (Eds.), 2022. Ecology of Soil Microorganisms – Book of Abstracts, Prague, June 19 – 23, 2022.

Photos from Prague

I’m ashamed at how little I have written this year, even though I have had several ideas for blog posts. To help assuage some of my guilt, I will share a few photographs I have taken.

I’m rather lucky to be living near the Krč forest where I can, regularly, go walking. At the beginning of the year it was still winter and most of the trees were bare.

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2022 Book List

We’re now in mid-March and I still haven’t written down my thoughts on the two books I read in January. A lot has been going on recently but, the longer I take to write these down, the worse my recollections become.

2021 Book List
2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

06/11/2022 Added Entangled Life and Pup Sloots.

The Philosopher and the Wolf (2008) by Mark Rowlands

In this book, Rowlands shares several of his experiences moving between countries and building a career in philosophy, all while raising a wolf. The anecdotes about Brenin, the wolf, invariably serve as the starting point for some sort of philosophical digression. While several of these digressions are indeed interesting, I was seldom convinced by his arguments (see my blog post on what makes a person evil for an example).

I would’ve preferred much more of a focus on the stories involving Brenin, but those that are there do provide some fascinating insights on animal behaviour and training. While not all of the methods will probably be approved of by everyone, Rowlands does make the point that wolves and dogs are quite different and, from the stories he gives, he managed to have a wolf which was much better behaved than many dogs. It’s also clear that he cared deeply for Brenin, and his other dogs, and, especially towards the end, many of the stories were quite emotional.

If you were planning to read The Philosopher and the Wolf to hear about what is like to have a wolf as a pet, you will probably be disappointed. I’d estimate that that about two thirds of the book are given over to his philosophical musings which, if nothing else, at least serve as food for thought. I can’t say that I agreed with most of them but I did still enjoy the book and think it is worth reading.

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens

There’s really little to say about this one. It’s an old story and, if you have any contact with Western culture, you have likely seen an adaption, homage or parody of this. I am, of course, familiar with the story but not the original work. In fact, I think this is my first time reading Dickens’ own words. I have no complaints but, given how well-known the story is, there were no real surprises.

What was special was that I was reading a copy which, I believe, had been my maternal grandmother’s. I can’t recall the exact printing date of the book but it was around 80-90 years old. While not as old as the story itself, it’s still quite a bit of history and all of the people who originally bought and read it are now dead. Yet the book is still there, can still be read and provides a tangible link to the past. Plus, a physical book has no battery issues or file type compatibility problems.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020) by Merlin Sheldrake

Written by an author with one of the most amazing names I’ve seen, Entangled Life is all about fungi. There are discussions on how fungi evolved, how they influence plant life, the truffles we eat and how we can use fungi for our own benefits, including one chapter that covers the technologies in The Moralbiont. Sheldrake is so obsessed with fungi that some of the illustrations in the book are even drawn with ink made from a fungus!

Although my interests and the book’s topic overlap quite well, I wasn’t crazy about all aspects of the book; several chapters are written in their own style and not all of them sat well with me. The chapter on truffles takes on the sort of narrative style which can drive a story along but which tends to irritate me as I find it all too convenient. I made a similar criticism about Darwin’s Ghosts a couple of years back. And there are other sections which are so effusive that it feels like he’s trying to make every other paragraph a pale, blue dot moment.

That said, I would still highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in microbiology. Stylistic quibbles aside, there is a lot of very good and very interesting information in the pages. Most of it I knew of already but there were also plenty of titbits which I had not yet encountered.

Pup Sloots (2020) by Phoenix Xander Artemis

Jumping from fungi to a gay, BDSM, petplay romance might seem like quite a leap but there is actually a microbiology connection between the two; Pup Sloots takes place during the time of coronavirus. More specifically, back in 2020 when things were crazy, no vaccines were available and hard lock-downs were enacted across the world. Despite what I expected, the majority of the, very short, book actually takes place after the lock-down restrictions are lifted.

The story is told through the first-person perspective of an alpha pup who meets someone the night before lock-down restrictions are enacted and who must then wait until they can continue building their romance in person. The entire relationship is built around BDSM dynamics, in particular puppy play, which is a form of role play where the participants act as human dogs. The book describes it all as well as the main character’s thought processes and motivations.

It’s an interesting book. I really enjoyed the dynamics of the relationship and how everything is described (although I think some of the language which is claimed as being specific to puppy play is really just Lolspeak and common to many internet communities, e.g. using “gib” for “give.”) but it will not be for everyone as it does all build up to explicit sex. That said, my only real hesitation with recommending it would be the length; it is not even 100 pages. However, the psychological aspects of the story are good and it is even educational. If one has any curiosity in that area then one could assuage that curiosity while also helping support a small-scale writer.

What makes a person evil?

The first book I’m reading this year is Mark Rowland‘s memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf. For now, I will just say that it’s stories of having a wolf mixed with some philosophical musings. One of those musings concerned evil. He maintained that evil does exist, though not in a supernatural sense, and that it consists of “very bad things” and that people do those “very bad things” due to a failure on their part, both a failure of moral duty (to do the right thing) and epistemic duty (to properly subject one’s beliefs to scrutiny). He contrasted that with the modern view of evil which, he claimed, is seen as people doing “very bad things” because of an underlying medical or social issue. I think that both of those views are fundamentally flawed and want to describe a different way of viewing evil.

Let’s briefly consider the idea that evil actions are those actions which are very bad, i.e. at the extreme end of a scale of bad actions. Shoplifting a chocolate bar is bad but not very bad. It’s worse to steal a car but still not evil. Premeditated murder, especially if paired with some other crime, is now getting to the sort of thing we would nearly all agree is evil. But there’s a flaw; except for religious beliefs, there is no “objective” morality, so there is no objective and universal measurement which you can use to say something is bad. As there is insufficient evidence to support the claims of religion, we must discard it. We are left with secular morality.

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