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Book review: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

2 Oct

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, self-gratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not.

Why Is the Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it spends a fair bit of time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?).

Jesse Bering – science writer and psychologist

But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them.

In the hands of someone else, this might all have been rather trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on these controversial topics is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal.

There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree:

“Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.”

Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style, and it’s this that holds Why Is the Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. The essays are grouped into themes, but there’s no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this means that the book can be dipped into at any time, with each essay acting as a stand-alone chunk of text.

Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is the Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again.

This review first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Guru magazine, alongside an interview with Jesse Bering. Download the magazine for free here.

Review: Uncaged Monkeys in Birmingham

6 May

This week saw the start of the Uncaged Monkeys tour – the first ever national science tour to be let loose on the British public. Robin Ince (co-presenter of Radio 4’s ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’) is the host, and he’s joined by Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Helen Arney, the ‘Peter Andre of particle physics’, Brian Cox, and a smattering of other sciencey people over the different dates.

A tribe of monkeys (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

I watched the Birmingham leg last night at the Alexandra Theatre, a curious, timeworn place where you expect Ken Dodd to jump out from behind a curtain at any minute, waving his feather duster. The theatre was completely sold out and busier than Berlusconi’s bedroom. Maybe it’s the Brian Cox effect – two girls sitting behind me were discussing whether to hire the binoculars when he came onstage. Either way, it felt a long way from my undergraduate physics days.

The Uncaged Monkeys in cardboard cutout form (http://weepaperpeople.blogspot.com/)

The master of ceremonies, Robin Ince, is a very, very funny man. I’d quite happily pay to see him perform his own stand-up show. But last night was all about the science, so on with the boffins. First up was Ben Goldacre, who gave a talk based on his ‘Bad Science’ book about medical scandals, drug trial farces and Daily Mail scare stories. A lot more fun than it sounds, especially when he laid into TV nutritionist ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith and talked about signing up his dead cat, Hettie, for the American Association of Nutritional Consultants.

As expected, Brian Cox did the wide-eyed ‘Wonders of the Universe’ thing that he could probably do in his sleep by now. This man seems to have a superhuman ability for memorising long numbers, and all credit to someone who can explain both relativity and the Standard Model in five minutes without batting an eyelid. He also played this clip of Carl Sagan describing the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, taken by Voyager 1 as it looked back towards the distant Earth – really beautiful, humbling stuff.

Simon Singh kept on the astronomy/cosmology theme with his Big Bang talk, as did Helen Keen with her irreverent overview of the Space Race (conclusion: we owe our space successes to Nazis and Satanists). The other Helen, of the Arney variety, provided an awesome musical interlude in the form of ukulele songs about animal sex rituals and Countdown presenter envy. Just a normal night at the theatre, then.

Simon Singh and the glowing gherkin (photo: Richard Freeman at Glasgow Comedy Festival)

Science in a theatre worked surprisingly well. OK, so the production values were virtually non-existent (the nearest we got to special effects was Simon Singh electrifying a gherkin), but the presenters and their Powerpoints were alone enough to captivate the audience for the full three hours. Bells and whistles obviously aren’t needed when the subject matter is this mind-blowing. Or maybe that was just the effect of Prof Cox’s velvety tones…

Book review: Logicomix

2 Apr

Logicomix is a Greek book which charts the history of mathematical logic during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although this prospect may sound as enticing as a piranha pedicure, please bear with me – for this is no ordinary book about maths. There’s mystery! There’s suspense! There’s even some romance!

Logicomix has two key features which helped to propel it towards the summit of bestseller charts when it was released in 2009. Firstly, the history of logic is recounted as an enthralling tale about the men who devoted themselves to this mathematical quest. Secondly, the story is presented in a beautifully-drawn comic book form – think Tintin if he swapped his dog for an abacus.

The comic’s superhero is Bertrand Russell: philosopher, logician and all-round superbrain, whose speech to an American university in 1939 acts as the story’s backbone. Beginning with his early life at Pembroke Lodge, Russell describes his own mathematical journey and the great minds that he meets along the way.

Bertrand Russell’s Eureka moment…discovering a paradox in set theory

Logicomix works well both as a general history of logic and as a stand-alone tale about the lives of some extraordinary men: this is not just a book for mathematicians. Logic is a complex subject, and the authors do their best to make it accessible to the uninitiated reader. This was the first time I’d come across a lot of these concepts (e.g. set theory and Russell’s paradox), but the lucid illustrations helped a great deal. The book also takes regular breathers from the main storyline to illustrate discussions between the authors, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

A recurring theme throughout Logicomix is the apparent connection between logic and madness, not the first time that this has been noticed:

“It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some time in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel, Peano, and Post are some.” (Gian-Carlo Rota, Italian mathematician)

Among these, Cantor and Gödel play a central role in Logicomix. Georg Cantor suffered from chronic depression and spent much of his later life in sanatoriums, and Kurt Gödel died from starvation due to an obsessive fear of being poisoned. Bertrand Russell himself was no stranger to mental instability: he revealed in his autobiography that a lonely adolescence led to him to contemplate suicide and, later in life, his eldest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Russell and Hyde

It’s this moving, challenging theme that gives Logicomix it’s depth and leaves a lasting impression. It was touching to read about the actual mathematicians responsible for the proofs and equations; their trials, successes, and seemingly endless thirst for mathematical truth. I heartily recommend Logicomix to anyone who has a passing interest in maths but is discouraged by dusty textbooks and chalky blackboards.

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