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February 1, 2024
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Seventy-one essays on science trivia, ranging from duck penises and hangover myths to the science behind duck penises
How to win friends and influence Fungi: Collected quirks of science, tech, engineering, and math from Nerd Nite
Edited by Matt Wasowski, Chris Balakrishnan
St. Martin’s Press, 2024 ($30)
As an author of science-fiction and horror novels, I am called on to seem like an expert on the various topics I write about—Pandemics! Artificial intelligence! Ants!—when really I’m just trying to use true facts to suspend readers’ disbelief and convince them that my made-up worlds are rooted in reality. The best tool in my toolbox is nonfiction, which is both salient, and accessible so that I can steal the concepts. I’m always on the lookout for material that is relevant and accessible, but not so demonstrating of its expertise as to fly over my head. (Or, as one essay in this book about catastrophic cosmic collisions calls them: ASSteroids.
You can also find out more about the following: How to win friends and influence FungiI have found my new bible: a scattershot blast with science-y and math-y micro essays covering a dizzying range of topics. The book is a collection of some of the most memorable Nerd Nite presentations from the past 20 years. Nerd Nite is a monthly event held in 100 cities around the world that allows audiences to come, have a beer and learn some weird but true stuff. Editors Chris Balakrishnan and Matt Wasowski—Nerd Nite is their brain baby—wanted to make it possible for anyone to flip to a page and partake in a short burst of fascination; with illustrations by Kristen Orr, the book succeeds in making its diverse subject matter immediately accessible. The style is quirky, light and sometimes hilarious. The 71 essays are roughly gathered into chapters, including “Creature Features,” “Pathogens and Parasites,” “Death and Taxes (But Really, Just Death),” and a sex-themed section, “Doing It.”
Want to find out why someone else’s eating sounds can make you violent and murderous? Jane Gregory, a clinical psychologist, will inform you of a condition she herself suffers: misophonia, or “when small repetitive sounds cause big negative reactions.” Curious about how birds have sex? Balakrishnan writes about duck penises and cloacal kisses. Did you know that you suffer from veisalgia, even though it is something you are not familiar with? It’s a fancy word for hangovers, and neuroscientist Paula Croxson will teach you all you need to know about it and its many—purely theoretical, mostly fake—cures.
The collection contains a lot more information than that. You’ll also discover information about pansexual primates and defecating on the moon, maggot therapy, spider sex catapults and the awesomeness (or not) of GMOs. chindōgu, the Japanese art of making eccentric, largely “un-useless” inventions.
“Bits” is the key word here—most of these essays are two, three, maybe four pages. They are not a full meal of knowledge and some essays end abruptly as they begin. Info-discuss interruptionThis leaves you frustrated, wanting to know more. If you think of this book as a buffet table of scientific knowledge, you will find it very interesting. amuse-bouchesIf you give each subject a single bite, your curiosity will be piqued, not fully satisfied. This will motivate you to explore more deeply the topics that particularly catch your attention.
I am a person with a sense of humor that is sometimes similar to a 12-year old. I enjoy the pop culture references, the puns and the lurid jokes about sex and our bodily excretions. The book is not just about chuckles. It also tackles issues such as mental illness, disability, sexuality and the open internet. For instance, in an essay on the public panic over genetically modified organisms (“They’re Putting Acid in Our Food!”), Tracy Kurtz, a Nerd Nite organizer in Fargo, N.D., reminds us that we’ve been genetically modifying our food for thousands of years.
If there is a weakness in the book, it would be the inequal quality of the essays. Many of the essays are well written, connecting the reader to the implications and jokes of the science. Several feel too shallow, and don’t deliver on knowledge or laughter.
This is perhaps expected, given the wide range of topics and the fact that every micro essay was written by a different writer. The joy is in the discovery, and in returning to the world with a renewed sense of curiosity. —Chuck Wendig
Chuck WendigIt is not. New York TimesBest-selling Author of Wanderers: The Book of Accidents, and much more.