Book Impressions — 2019-Q3

The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager

Often times we get so caught up in the latest technological advances that we don’t think about all the discoveries that came before us. This book is about perhaps one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century: antibiotics.

Hager does a masterful job weaving between different story lines about the search for antibiotics. As the subtitle suggests, we are taken from the trenches of World War I to Nazi research facilities (sort of). The one thing he does incredibly well is provide a narrative involving the individuals: the scientists (and bureaucrats) who, though all their flaws, make progress toward discovering the first antibiotics.

One thing that the book clearly describes, and something I never really put thought into, is how deadly bacteria can be. Something as simple as strep throat, an accidental cut on a stone in the garden or giving birth could easily lead to an terminal infection. Millions of people died from these “simple” infections. Nowadays, these problems are just an afterthought because we’ve discovered a panacea in antibiotics.

Besides all the more scientific details, the thing I appreciated most about the book is the humanization of the whole endeavor. One of the “protagonists”, Domagk, was a brilliant scientist who methodically tested hundreds (if not thousands) of drugs that eventually led to the (accidental) discovery of sulpha (the first antibiotic). However, it was clear that he was just human. He was worried about money, status, and his family. He became depressed at various points in his life, was conflicted about Nazi Germany, and jealous of competing researchers who soon after discovered a much more effective sulpha variant that was lying under his nose.

Often we forget that the most brilliant of us are just regular people with hopes and dreams and just doing the best they can. We idolize Einstein or (in my case) Munger but they too were/are just humans. It’s a bit of relief to know that the problems and worries that you have also afflicted the best of us. It’s obvious when you think about it but it’s always nice to get a reminder and to humanize those whom we put on a pedestal.

In summary, Hager writes a great narrative about one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century that really gives life to the great minds behind the discovery. Go read it!

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

If someone told you that there was something you could do that could simultaneously make you look more attractive, healthier, and smarter, you’d probably think they were a scam artist, right? Well that thing does exist and it’s sleep!

Why We Sleep is an easily accessible book on everything to do with sleep. It covers a broad spectrum of topics such as sleep’s function (as we understand it today), health benefits, disorders, dreaming, societal impacts, and, in particular, how to sleep better. A theme throughout the book (surprise, surprise) is that sleep is very important. What I found most interesting is why it’s so important.

Two interesting models (I use the term model because we don’t know exactly how sleep works yet) that I learned:

  1. There are two independent processes going on when you get tired: a circadian rhythm and a sleep drive process. The circadian rhythm is your biological clock, it cycles roughly with day and night. It causes you to be more awake during the daytime and exerts little pressure to be awake at nighttime. The sleep drive process has the opposite effect. As you stay awake, your brain releases a chemical adenosine that gradually builds up and causes you to be more sleepy but gets purged when you get a good night’s sleep (caffeine inhibits the effect of adenosine). Your peak sleepiness will occur when your circadian rhythm is low but your level of adenosine is high, which typically should be at night time. This explains some common phenomenon such as having a “second wind” after pulling an all nighter (circadian rhythm), jet lag (circadian rhythm), or usage of caffeine to stay awake (sleep drive).
  2. Sleep has two (sort of) distinct phases: non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). REM sleep is the shallower sleep state where we dream, while NREM is a deep sleep state. Every night we cycle between REM and NREM several times, with NREM being more prevalent earlier in the night (deep sleep) with REM being more dominant as morning approaches. One of NREM’s primary functions is to take everything in our short term memory and store it in our longer term memory, kind of like filing things away. REM’s corresponding function is to make connections between all of the things we’ve learned, the metaphorical creative side. Of course, getting enough sleep is critical to ensuring both of these processes occur to make you smarter. However, what’s not obvious is that the proportion of NREM and REM sleep you get is pretty consistent with respect to the time of day (controlled by your circadian rhythm). So if you are going to bed 2 hour later than usual but still get the same 8 hours of sleep, you are going to get less NREM sleep. So it’s important to both sleep a solid 8 hours but also at the right time!

Besides these two important models of sleep, Walker goes on to espouse the myriad of benefits of sleep (as well as myriad of disorders due to lack of sleep). In our 24-hour screen society, it’s becoming so much harder to get a good night’s rest, and Walker attempts to educate and warn us of the perils of missed sleep.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I definitely recommend it. It’s easy to read with a huge amount of information. Personally, I’ve been practicing much better sleep habits since I read the book including a more consistent sleep schedule, no screen time before bed, cooler room temperature, and relaxation before bed (no work). If I still haven’t convinced you to read it, just sleep on it, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice in the morning.

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

After I read the the previous books, I wanted something lighter. Sometimes I get into a mood where I just don’t feel like using my left brain and instead switch to my right. Outside of fiction, this book is probably in that latter category.

I had already read this book last year, so this was a re-read. Definitely a sign of a good book. You can check out my previous impression here:

The only additional thing that I’ll add is that humans are complex, and so are their psychological disorders. We all suffer from some disorder to some degree. It’s eye opening to see the extreme ends of the spectrum in this book but it has also allowed me to reflect on my own behaviors and of those around me. And in particular, I think it’s allowed me to be a bit more understanding when people behave irrationally. And who doesn’t want a bit more understanding?