Reading Science Out Loud

My husband and I have a new entertainment: I read out loud to him from books about scientific subjects that I’ve checked out of the public library. We do this at the ends of meals mostly — I have always eaten much faster than he does — in my opinion because I grew up one of many children and he was an only child. We joked that there were two ways to be at the table: quick or hungry. I haven’t been able to break that early habit.

So while he takes his time and tastes his food, I read out loud.

We started with Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin. I started reading it to myself and had so much fun with it that I kept reading him passages out loud. So I decided to go back to the beginning and read it all out loud. It was fascinating to explore the connections between our body plans and those of other species on both the paleontological and molecular biology fronts — for example, how our limbs are structured relative to those of late fish, amphibia, and other mammals (one bone, two bones, lots-a-bones, digits).

When we finished that book, I returned to the library to pick up books referenced by Your Inner Fish. I found 4, and my husband suggested we read them from earliest geotime forwards. Life on a Young PlanetWe just finished Andrew Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, an exploration of fossil remains in rocks going as far back as the Archaean Eon, as much as 3.5 billion years ago to the “earliest glimmers of life (maybe).” I hadn’t been aware that our planet didn’t always have so much oxygen available, that the chemistry of ocean water has changed repeatedly. Nor was I aware what an enormous part that microorganisms play in keeping the oxygen, carbon, and other cycles going. It’s a good lesson in humility for humans.

So why do I write about this oddball form of entertainment here?

First to celebrate that I married a man who has the strength Love of Learning as much or more than I do. We have such a good time talking about the ideas that are new to us. He has a much better grounding in science than I do, so he often gets to explain back to me what I just read.

Second to explore another downward comparison that makes me appreciate a much used skill. I did a lot of stumbling over names — I started saying “the AK group” instead of “Akademikerbreen Group,” for example. I also found some of the sentences a little hard to parse as I went along — I’d read a word as a noun, and then realize it was the verb and have to go back and reread the sentence. But for every sentence where I did that, there were 100’s that I was able to read and and speak as I went. Wow, what a complex skill I take for granted all the time! I don’t think these authors expected to be read out loud.

We’ve finished several more books. The first 5 are listed below and the rest are in a later posting:

Time Travelers Wife
Michael Novacek, Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002

Read a review in American Scientist.

Ian Tattersall, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE. Oxford University Press. 2008.

Here’s a link to a picture of Ian Tattersall and a short description of his research interests.

Carroll, Sean (2005). Endless forms most beautiful: The new science of Evo Devo. New York: W. W. Norton.

This book was very stimulating and full of of explanatory pictures. The mechanisms of development are both complex and elegantly simple. The book brings together evidence from many fields – from fossils to fruit fly experiments.

Bainbridge, David (2008). Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: A fantastic journey through your brain. Harvard University Press.

This book was great fun — history, science, and technology of understanding how the nervous system works from bottom of the spine to front of head. The zonules of Zinn are the little fibers attached to the lens of your eye that can be pulled on by tiny muscles to flatten the lens so that you can see the distance.

Carroll, Sean (2006). The making of the fittest: DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution. New York: W. W. Norton.

This is a very readable explanation of evolution as it can be read by looking at the DNA of various species. It discusses fossil genes (genes that have mutated into non-functional forms because the associated features give no advantage to the species), immortal genes (genes that are so crucial to life that mutated forms do not survive), toolkit genes, gene switches. It also explains the mathematics of evolution in terms of variation, selection, and time.



Filed under Gratitude, Reading Aloud, Relationships, Strengths

4 responses to “Reading Science Out Loud

  1. Loved your description of table reading. It reminded me of two periods where reading aloud was part of my daily routine.

    First lasted for over 4 years, when I was reading aloud serious books to my daughter before she went to sleep. We spent almost 6 months with ‘Henry VII and His Six Wives’ by Antonia Fraser – it was a great experience. Never before did I get to remember details so well or grasp subtleties. Must be that this reading is part f the reason my daughter is now doing a PhD in Modern History.

    Second was at the time my father in law was fighting brain tumor and could not read himself any more. As a regular reader of New Scientist, he was receiving the publication every week. So, I took to reading aloud to him chosen articles. Often, I would have to read sentences several times to get the meaning and even then some made no sense.

    As you note, most of these were not written to be read aloud. As it happens, I read after my exercises with dad a paper by Stephen Jay Gould about the difference between written and spoken language and his explanation of why scientists are bad at writing spoken word.

  2. Kathryn


    Thanks for your response. I’m pleased to pluck some pleasant memory strings for you. I’ll have to look for that Stephen Jay Gould paper.

    It does remind me of advice my husband got from his dissertation advisor once upon a time: to read it out loud to himself as part of his final editing. That piece of advice came after “Read Strunk and White. Read Strunk and White. Read Strunk and White.” I read a paper out loud to myself recently getting it ready for a journal. It’s odd what you see reading out loud that you don’t see when reading to yourself.


  3. Pingback: Reading Science Out Loud, Round 2 « Positive Psychology Reflections

  4. Pingback: Reading Science Out Loud, Round 3 « Positive Psychology Reflections

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