Saturday, June 16, 2007

Reviews 2007-06-16: Non-Fiction Books

I'm way behind on writing up what books I've read. This is non-fiction books.

In this roundup:

  • 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies
  • Programming the Universe, by Seth Lloyd
  • Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer
  • How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman
  • Better, by Atul Gawande
  • Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert

Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered America is a great companion to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (which I reviewed previously). The book subtitle is "The Year China Discovered the World" for the non-American editions. (<insert snarky comment about stupid Americans here>)

Menzies starts his book with an account of how he found a map dated authoritatively to 1424, which showed islands that he eventually deduced were Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe -- including a notation that there was a volcano on Guadeloupe, which matched geological evidence that there had been an eruption between 1400 and 1440 - and not for a hundred years before or after. He started looking at more and more old charts and maps, and kept finding evidence that the European explorers had accurate charts of diverse parts of the world (including Antarctica!) long before they actually visited them. He came to the conclusion that only China could have done the original charting at that time -- no one else had the technology or the manpower to do it.

Menzies is a retired British submarine commander, and has experience crucial to being able to work with the old charts and maps he was investigating -- hands-on experience navigating by stars (especially in the southern hemisphere) as well as first-hand knowledge of currents and charting from near-sea-level.

After a short introdcution, the book starts off with an account of China in 1421: Emperor Zhu Di, third Ming Emperor, opened the just-completed Forbidden City in Beijing (hosting leaders and potentates from all over southern Asia and eastern Africa), and launched a huge fleet of trade/tribute ships (commanded by eunuchs loyal to the emperor), to first take back all the leaders who had come to Beijing and then to chart the world and bring it into China's tribute system.

While the fleet was away, though, lightning started a fire the destroyed much of the Forbidden City, which led to a revolt amongst the Mandarin class (who had been push aside by Zhu Di). The Mandarins, pointing to the fire as evidence that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn from Zhu Di, took power, and closed China. When the trade fleets returned, they were burned to the waterline and all documentation that could be found was destroyed.

What became clear to Menzies was that what little documentation -- some charts and maps -- remained, leaked westward until it was picked up by the Portuguese and Spanish, who used it to their advantage when exploring. Magellan claimed to his mutinous crew to have a chart showing that the Straits of Magellan were actually a strait -- narrowly averting the mutiny. Columbus and his brother made a distorted copy of a world map that showed Africa and Malaysia both extending much further south than they actually do, and used that to convince the Spanish Crown that the Portuguese were in for a rough time looking for an eastward route to the Spice Islands -- and thus the westward route was worth trying. Prince Henry the Navigator ordered his fleets to find the islands they'd seen on a chart ("Antilia" and "Satanaze" -- modern-day Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe).

Menzies, details his slow deciphering of old charts (mostly copies of other, even older charts), and his slow realization that some of these are stunningly correct about parts of the world that Europeans had never seen at that point. (One fascinating example of this is a map that shows what we now call Patagonia, which included drawings some of its now-extinct megafauna. Another is a map of Africa which becomes accurate once ocean currents are taken into account -- the chart was most probably drawn with dead-reckoning as the measurement method; factoring in the current that goes up the west side of Africa and then turns west around the bulge, the map is accurate.)

The book has dozens of examples and a huge amount of detail about the four giant fleets that China sent out in 1421 -- they went all across the Indian Ocean, and thence around to the Cape Verde Islands, where they rendezvous'd and then commenced huge charting expeditions. Menzies believes that there were upwards of 800 ships involved, some of which were 400 feet long. (In contrast, the Santa Maria was about as long as my house.) In addition to the charts, there are a large number of pieces of archaeological, linguistic, and sociological evidence which can at least tentatively be explained by Chinese visitation or even colonization around the world.

Some of the examples seem seriously stretching (there's a claim that Navajo elders in the early 1900s could understand Chinese, which seems really weird to me), but if even half -- or even a third -- of the possibilities connected to Chinese voyages of discovery, it would be an amazing discovery.

Fundamentally, there's nothing outlandish (or even surprising) about the idea that Chinese seafarers made it to the Americas or had charted most of the world -- China in the early 15th Century, after all, was decades if not centuries ahead of the rest of the world technologically and scientifically. But the idea that they might have charted the world, and then thrown it all away, is just mindblowing. But the Mandarin closing of China is (ironically) fairly well documented, and any such voyages of discovery could easily have been wiped out of the official historical record. (Far stranger things have happened.)

The documentary evidence in European archives -- letters between the Columbus brothers, Magellan's claims to his sailors, and so on -- are in many ways the most convincing, although a few archaeological sites (like a wreck buried in the sands in the Sacramento river turning out to be a Chinese Junk) would be well-nigh incontrovertible. The drama of this discovery is still unfolding -- a lot of data is still being brought to light. Menzies has a web site,, which includes recent finds and corroborating data.

Bottom line: fascinating subject and an entertaining book. The book could have been edited a bit better, and I really wish that more diagrams had been included -- like "before" and "after" versions of charts with the currents included. I also wished for more of the actual detective story in addition to the results. But overall, highly recommended.

Seth Lloyd's Programming the Universe was a disappointment. It's hard to tell if it would be disappointing to other people, though, because it's about the physics of the Universe being a computer. Being a former physicist and current computer geek, I figured this would be right up my alley, but it turned out to be far too vague for me on both the physics and the computing. It may be that someone for whom both subjects were relatively unknown would feel more enlightened.

Bottom line: I was bored by it, but you might not be.

Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex is a collection of essays that Zimmer put together in 2001. It feels more like an interconnected set of essays than a book, which isn't always bad, but this seemed like a rough joining job. That being said, I really like Zimmer's writing (he blogs over at too), and there's a lot of fascinating (if potentially disgusting) things in here.

From the life cycle of malaria to liver flukes, there are a lot of weird life forms out there, and Zimmer's central point -- that scientists have neglected parasites -- is well supported. Some of his more speculative ideas (that lack of parasites in first world countries lead to increased allergies and other immune system disorders) are less well supported, but are quite plausible and seem like great areas of further research.

Bottom line: recommended if you have a strong stomach.

It seems like every other doctor in Boston is writing a book these days, and Jerome Groopman is one of the better ones. I've been reading his articles in The New Yorker and other places for a while now, and almost always enjoy them. How Doctors Think is Groopman's long meditation on the number of ways that doctors can mis-think, mis-diagnose, and otherwise mess up when treating patients.

The book is a good read. It's mostly anecdotal in approach, and while each episode is fascinating, I ultimately wanted some higher-level wrapup or framing for the various cognitive issues that Groopman is addressing.

Bottom line: a good read, but not the best thing in the world.

Atul Gawande's Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance is another of the Boston-doctor-written books (he's also a New Yorker writer), and it's a very good book indeed. Gawande is for my money a better writer than Groopman -- better on the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level (he approaches poetry sometimes), and better on the integration of large and small scales of focus. Better is about efforts to make health care, well, better. His critical eye ranges from attempts to make doctors actually wash their hands (a truly scary chapter for anyone who knows someone who's been in the hospital recently) to the effort to eradicate polio in India, taking in along the way doctors involved in capital punishment, what kind of money doctors make, and how army physicians have achieved astounding results saving lives in Iraq.

All through the book, it's clear you're in the hands of someone who is humane and cares deeply about both the systemic, emotional, moral, ethical, and, well, human dimensions of the practice of medicine. It's one of the best nonfiction, non-history books I've read in a long time.

Bottom line: highly recommended.

Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness is a survey of the current understanding about how humans make -- and fail to make -- themselves happy. It's mostly about how we fail to understand what does make us happy, and how we mis-predict how we'll feel in the future and how we felt in thte past. It's a solid addition to the "wow, this data is totally counterintuitive -- our intuition sucks" genre.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot, but while I read it most recently of all the nonfiction books reviewed here, I really don't remember much about it. The amount of detail was overwhelming. One thing that did stick with me was the study that showed (based on highly granular emotional-state self-reports) that men and women react very similarly emotionally -- but later on, they drastically differ in their memory and categorization, with men de-emphasizing emotional reactions and women over-emphasizing them.

There's a lot of great detail in the book, and I think I'm going to have to re-read it to make it stick. Perhaps, though, I've forgotten most of it because to remember it would destroy my carefully-wrought defense mechanisms that I use to avoid predicting correctly what I've felt in the past and how I'll feel in the future.

Bottom line: recommended.

To summarize:

BookWriterRating (out of 5 stars)
1421: The Year China Discovered AmericaGavin Menzies4.7
Programming the UniverseSeth Lloyd3.0
Parasite RexCarl Zimmer4.0
How Doctors ThinkJerome Groopman4.0
BetterAtul Gawande4.6
Stumbling on HappinessDaniel Gilbert4.3


Chad Mynhier said...

How long is your house?

rantingnerd said...

Well, according to this wikipedia entry, the Santa Maria was 70 feet long (or maybe 82 feet long; this is Wikipedia, after all), which is indeed larger than my house. But it would fit comfortably into my back yard. My point is that the Chinese junks were 400+ feet long, 100 feet wide, and had several levels of staterooms. The ships the Europeans crossed the Atlantic in were tiny. This actually increases my respect for their bravery, or at least foolhardiness.

Anonymous said...

Hi, very interesting post, greetings from Greece!